Extended interview: Sandra Leung, GC of Bristol-Myers Squibb

Leung talks in-depth about her position at the biopharmaceutical company.

Read the print version of this interview.

To put it simply, Sandra Leung is a people person. Her natural knack for connecting with others is a talent she’s had since she was young. Growing up in Stamford, Conn., as one of 10 children born to Chinese immigrants, she admired her parents’ perseverance but empathized with their struggles.

“My perception from time to time was that my parents were taken advantage of. They didn’t know how things worked here because of language or cultural issues,” Leung says. She realized then that she wanted to become a lawyer so she could speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.

Leung studied political science at Tufts University and then attended Boston College Law School. After graduation, she went to work at the district attorney’s office in New York, where she handled child abuse and homicide cases. Eight years later, Leung, who by that time was married with two small children, decided to find a more stable job. She applied to a position in the litigation department at Bristol Myers-Squibb and immediately identified with the biopharmaceutical company’s mission to create medicines that make a difference in peoples’ lives. The company hired her as a litigator in 1992, and she became corporate secretary in 1999. In 2007, Leung became general counsel, a position she says she never dreamed she’d have, but is “absolutely the best job in the world.”

Q: Tell me how you advanced within Bristol-Myers Squibb.

A: I had been in litigation for a while, and one day my boss called and said, “Would you like to be the corporate secretary?” And I said, “Well, what’s the corporate secretary?” I had no idea. My boss said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s a rotational thing you’ll do for two years. It’s corporate stuff.” It wasn’t a promotion, but I decided to get outside my comfort zone and take some risks.

I learned a tremendous amount during my first couple years as corporate secretary. I made a lot of mistakes—fortunately, none of them were fatal. We faced one crisis after another shortly after I became corporate secretary. I learned to rely on people for advice. I maintained a sense of humor, which was very important.

In September 2006, I was asked to be interim general counsel when a series of circumstances led to the termination of our CEO and GC. In February 2007, the interim tag was removed from my title, and I was named general counsel.

Q: Tell me about the trouble Bristol-Myers Squibb was facing when you became corporate secretary.

A: We survived a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation with respect to accounting matters. We were also under a deferred prosecution agreement for two years with a federal monitor working with us.

What I’m really proudest of is helping the company work through those crises and working with the new management team. We are a completely different company today than we were back then. It’s an amazing turnaround story, and I’m happy to have been in a position to contribute to that. You learn the most about people in crisis situations, and people get a sense of who you are. You surprise yourself with what you can do.

Q: Tell me about the legal department at Bristol-Myers Squibb.

A: We have about 110 attorneys and a number of support staff. I also have the environmental health and safety group, as well as corporate security, reporting to me in the law department. We have lawyers all over the world. I have regulatory, commercial, intellectual property, trademark, M&A, securities and transactions lawyers—it’s a fairly large, highly talented and skilled group.

Q: Is it challenging to manage a team of international lawyers?

A: Communication is the most important thing in making sure that we have an eye on attorney development, which is difficult to do when people are so geographically dispersed. I have a blog on my SharePoint site; I try to blog on topics that I think are important, and we sometimes get a good dialogue going. We’re trying to think of innovative ways to communicate within the law department. We want to make people feel like they’re part of a community. We’re using media to do that. We have video clips that go out on various things, too. We interview attorneys or other people who do interesting things, and we share that with the other attorneys. We also use our SharePoint site as a knowledge-management tool, so we’re not constantly reinventing the wheel around the world.

I also try to travel to the other offices at least once a year. I was in Paris in October meeting with our European legal team, and I was in Shanghai in July to meet with our Asian Pacific legal team.

Q: How did working at the DA’s office differ from or compare to working in-house?

A: Working at the DA’s office, I learned a lot of good skills that translated well in working for a publicly held corporation. For example, when I worked at the DA’s office, we had to be comfortable assessing a complex set of facts and making sense of them, and then making a recommendation based on an imperfect set of facts. You don’t have the luxury of time to cross every “t” and dot every “i” every time something comes up. That translates well in a corporation. What clients want sometimes is an answer or a bottom-line recommendation—they don’t want to know what options A, B and C might be, and what are the relative merits of each. And they don’t want a 50-page memo on it.

The other skill I learned at the DA’s office was the real need to get along with people from all walks of life and get people to trust you. At the DA’s office, we worked with a really diverse group of people. Whether they were crime victims, judges, witnesses or defendants, you had to find something to get people to talk to you and trust you. That’s somewhat the same working in a corporation. Our clients, for the most part, are people who we work with every day, and you need to get them to know where you’re coming from and get them to trust you.

Q: What’s most challenging about your work?

A: The biggest challenge we have in the pharmaceutical industry is working with the changing regulatory landscape. There are lots of different intricacies involved in why certain legislation has passed, what might be happening down the road, what might be happening in one part of the world that could impact another—dealing with the global aspect of our work is very challenging.

All general counsel need to look around corners and figure out not just what today’s issues are, but what they need to be doing now to compete effectively tomorrow.

Q: What do you most enjoy about your work?

A: I work with an outstanding group of people who are really bright—far brighter than I am. I always make it a point to surround myself with people who are much smarter than I am. I used to run cross-country when I was in high school, and I always ran with people who were faster than me because that forced me to run faster. By analogy, that’s the same at work. I really try to hire really smart people with tremendous integrity.

Q: Tell me about Bristol-Myers Squibb’s commitment to diversity.

A: We have a diversity committee within the law department. It’s a highly energized group in charge of our summer internship program, which is geared toward law students in their first and second year who are diverse candidates. We also participate in Minority Corporate Counsel Association events, and other events for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress at Bristol-Myers Squibb in terms of diversity. I never thought I’d have the position I have today when I came to the company. It was much more monolithic and homogenous than it is today. Now, we have two women on our most senior management committee. And we have lots of geographic diversity on our management committee—more than half of the people on the management committee did not grow up in the United States. Our CEO is from Italy and didn’t grow up in the U.S. We really find that to be a competitive advantage because this industry is increasingly global.

Q: What advice would you give to a young lawyer aspiring to become a GC?

A: You have to be willing to do the hard work. Be an expert at what you do. You have to get outside of your comfort zone. Sometimes you have to take a step or two backwards or sideways to advance. You have to recognize opportunities and be willing to take risks.

Q: What’s your proudest moment, either professional or personal?

A: I am proud of helping Bristol-Myers Squibb navigate through some of the problems we had in the past and seeing all that good work come to fruition now. The company is in a very good place, with new products approved in areas of significant medical need. Several months back, we had a product approved for metastatic melanoma. It’s the first drug to treat that devastating disease in more than 15 years. It makes me proud to help keep the company focused on the good things that we’re doing now in spite of some of the negative things that have happened in the past.

Q: If you didn’t work in law, what would your dream job be?

A: I’m an entrepreneur at heart. My dream job would be to own my own café. I love to cook and make people happy. I’d like to open it in my hometown or a place where there would be lots of regulars. It’s kind of ironic because my father owned a restaurant. He worked so hard because he didn’t want us to go into the restaurant business, but I don’t think it’s so bad. 

Contributing Author

Ashley Post

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