Healthcare general counsel step up
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
In the first two months of the coronavirus pandemic Novartis received about 1,000 requests for medicines that could help treat the virus through its “managed access” programmes. The scheme allows doctors to request drugs they believe are likely to benefit their patients, but which have not yet received regulatory approval for that specific use. The number of requests was more than the Swiss pharmaceuticals group usually receives a year.
The company’s lawyers had to work quickly and balance risk with potential benefit to approve the requests. In-house lawyers across industries have traditionally been criticised for sitting too far on one side of that scale and avoiding risk. Novartis’s chief legal officer, Shannon Thyme Klinger, says: “The crisis has been a way to help us recalibrate. We don’t have time to focus on perfection but need to focus on progress.”
Novartis’s managed access requests are assessed by its medical experts and lawyers to consider local laws and regulations. The approval process usually takes five days but lawyers worked to approve Covid-19 related requests in just three to four hours.
Healthcare companies have been on the frontline during the pandemic and their legal teams feature strongly in this report’s top 10 innovative in-house teams.
The crisis has slowed some business activities — such as mergers and acquisitions — but it has accelerated others. Digital transformation has risen up the business agenda, and sustainability and purpose have taken on renewed importance. In-house lawyers have an active role to play in both. The Novartis legal team have stepped up as “key enablers of our work to reimagine medicine,” says Vas Narasimhan, chief executive of Novartis.
The crisis also demands greater collaboration within teams, companies and between competitors. Lawyers in this year’s top-ranked in-house legal team, at UK drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline, navigated competition, data privacy and other legal restrictions to enable a series of new collaborations. These include a partnership with French pharma group Sanofi to develop a potential Covid-19 vaccine and with UK rival AstraZeneca and Cambridge university to support coronavirus testing in the UK.
GSK’s general counsel, James Ford, says the company’s lawyers are used to complex negotiations under pressure, but the circumstances of their work related to Covid-19 stand out as they “are personal to all of us and have a real impact on society”. In addition to requiring “enormous creativity”, he says it has “reinforced for all of our teams the importance of coupling purpose with performance”.
In-house lawyers working in other industries have also played their part. IT services company DXC Technology has supported clients, which include the UK’s NHS, to ensure staff have the technology to work remotely. Lawyers worked around the clock to ensure 5,000 laptops were set up at the temporary Nightingale hospital in London when it was established in the ExCeL exhibition centre in just nine days. “Everyone is on the frontline,” says Steve Turpie, regional general manager at DXC Technology. Lawyers are considered an essential part of client-facing teams, alongside colleagues in other departments such as finance, sales or human resources, he says. “We measure the legal team’s value by its contribution to customer experience and growth strategy.”
The company appointed Mike Salvino as chief executive in September 2019. Since then, Mr Salvino has rebuilt much of the organisation but kept the legal team intact. “I have seen its business impact — for our people and customers,” he says.
Indeed the teams in the top 10 list, right, are selected for supporting their businesses, and as strategic advisers, business enablers and thought leaders. Team sizes are included in recognition that bigger teams are more likely to involve more complex challenges.
The crisis has renewed the focus of many in-house lawyers on their customers and ultimate business purpose. While it may seem paradoxical, the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns have in many cases created more connected legal teams.
Nassib Abou-Khalil, chief legal officer at Nokia, the telecoms company, says that when his team joined video calls from home with children and dogs in the background, “we broke the barrier between home, personal and work. We crossed a barrier and will never go back”.
When he took over the role a year ago, Mr Abou-Khalil set our three strategic pillars for the legal team: inclusion and diversity; being a partner for sustainable business; and innovation and digitisation. All three have helped the legal team through the disruption of the past six months, he says. For example, digital initiatives had laid the foundations for lawyers to manage supply chain and contracting issues remotely.
At Novartis, Ms Klinger says: “We have a more engaged legal function today than we did 12 months ago, because we are seeing even more the impact we can have.”
However, as businesses face further potential lockdowns and disruption, the challenge will be to keep motivation high. “We have had to find a way to not just deliver legal advice and innovation but to lean in and deliver energy and spirit to keep people energised and focused on the mission,” she says.