Sally Bundock - interviewer (SB) Hello, and welcome to this live webcast from the International Bar Association Headquarters in Central London. I’m Sally Bundock, and today I’m joined by Funke Abimbola, who is Roche UK’s award winning general counsel and company secretary.
She leads the legal corporate compliance and data protection functions, supporting Roche pharmaceutical operations in the UK, Ireland, Malta and Gibraltar.
So, you can imagine her in-tray is pretty full, but she does manage to find time for other things. So, apart from the day job, Funke does an awful lot of other work. In particular, she does a lot of work to boost diversity within the legal profession. In particular, she’s a part of many networks that support women solicitors, and those who want to pursue a career in Life Sciences law. On top of that, she does other charity work. She’s a part of a committee at the House of Lords. Its aim is to boost diversity within the recruitment process itself, and she’s won several awards along the way.
Last but by no means least, Funke is a proud mum, and we understand that Max is tuning in.
Funke Abimbola (FA) He is.
SB He’s 14 years old, and Max, welcome too. Before we get started, there is so much to discuss. I just want to invite you who are tuning in around the world to this webcast; please send us your questions or your comments as we are having our discussion here. We want you to get involved and be a part of it, and, of course, get the answers that you are looking for. So, thank you.
FA Thank you.
SB For giving your time to us today.
FA Not at all, it’s a pleasure.
SB So, let’s start by discussing your role as general counsel because it is such a far reaching role, a lot more than being just a lawyer, isn’t it?
FA It really is. I look after a core market within region Europe for Roche, so my team looks after, not only the UK but also Ireland and Malta and Gibraltar as well. So, that’s a very big patch. We look after the legal and compliance issues that fall within that. And the Welwyn site, which is where I’m based here in the UK, is one of only three sites globally that has all stages of the clinical development process, and also post-marketing functions represented, so we see it as a very busy site because of that. We’ve got global colleagues who are based at that site, who report into line managers globally. It’s just very exciting. It’s wonderful.
SB So, it’s a key site, you’ve got the process from beginning to end at the Welwyn site in the UK.
SB And just explain the main legal aspects that you’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis as general counsel of Roche UK. What does that mean for you?
SB The bulk of our work is contractually based in some way. Being a lawyer, you can’t get too far away from agreements, but we deal with data protection as well. I manage litigation. We support employment, our HR teams around that. We do a lot of work around the Medicines Act and regulatory side, clinical trials. It’s a very broad role for us, and many other areas as well; regulatory, supporting the drug safety functions in different ways.
SB So, very broad.
FA It is.
SB It sounds pretty complicated as well. You’ve got several hats on in that role, haven’t you? I would imagine those who are tuning in and watching us would be very interested in your views on balancing the insourcing of work to an in-house legal team, and also when you need to get external help or external expertise, how do you work through that process?
FA Yes. I aim to keep as much in-house as I can. It’s very good for my team to develop. I’m really committed to empowering them and their development, and that doesn’t happen if you’re farming out work all the time to an external panel. So, we retain the bulk of the work in-house. The only time when we farm work out is when we are going to struggle with resource, or if it’s a really niche area like pensions law, which is always changing, and we can’t justify having a pensions lawyer in-house just for that side of things.
SB And when you go to look for someone external, an external adviser, lawyer, what are you looking for? What expertise do they need?
FA The technical expertise is a given. It’s funny how law firms seem to feel that that’s something that is an added bonus almost, that you’re technically strong. But, actually, that’s only the starting point. What’s very important for us is the good fit on the cultural side. We’re a very diverse organisation in the UK, and we really want to see that reflected with all our suppliers, of which law firms are but one.
So, the cultural fit, and diversity and inclusion, and that whole diversity of thought mind-set is something that we look for very strongly.
SB And what do you mean by that? What is a cultural fit with Roche UK?
FA I’ll give you a few of the statistics, just to give you an idea of how diverse we are. We have more female than male leaders on the site, which in itself is remarkable, and that’s women in senior leadership roles. About 60 per cent across the site are women, and also in the pipeline for succession planning as well.
We’ve got a high number of social mobility; lots and lots of people being encouraged to develop, becoming the first generation in their families to have any form of further education, for example. And, we have, at last count, over 31 nationalities represented, about half of whom would fall within BAME; black and minority ethnic.
So, those three things make us really stand out, and when I first started it was like a wake up call to me because, of course, I’d never experienced this at any of the law firms where I’d worked, and I realised the way we recruit is very different.
We’re not prescriptive about things like which university someone went to. We look for the potential in people. We look for the right attitude. We look for people who are going to really challenge. Because innovation is at the heart of everything we do, we have to drive that diversity forward.
SB And how long has that kind of culture been in place at Roche? Because this is a very old company. It’s been around a long time. Its headquarters are in Switzerland. Many would possibly view it as quite conservative, in a sense, because of its history. How has it managed to garner that culture?
FA I would say this has probably evolved over the last ten years or so. And what really drove it was the need to carry on innovating, because if you’re looking at issues and looking at decision-making and everyone’s looking at it through the same lens, you’ll end up coming out with the same solution.
It’s such a simple way of putting it, but, actually, as an organisation we realised that this was going to give us a competitive edge. It was going to help us retain our colleagues, because there’s a real buzz about working in an environment like this.
SB And in terms of looking for people, presumably you’re looking internationally.
FA We are.
SB Although they may be based at Welwyn in the UK, you’re looking worldwide for the talent. I mean the talent is key, isn’t it?
FA Very important. And we do a lot of... A lot of commercial organisations do lots of forecasting around the pipeline millennials. You know, what is it that my son’s generation, for example, will be looking for when they enter the marketplace, which, of course, is very different to what I would have been looking for. Work-life balance suddenly becomes very important to them. They talk about the career jungle, rather than the career ladder, and things like that. So, it’s very important to have that in mind when you’re planning where the organisation is going, and companies who don’t do that will fall by the wayside.
SB As we’ve naturally moved on to the issue of diversity… We’ll focus on that a little bit longer, but I want to come back to the general counsel role because there’s so much more to discuss. But, just to say that you describe yourself in your own family as the rebel because all your siblings are in medicine.
SB Both your mother and father are in medicine, actually. So, you are the one who didn’t follow that path; you went into law. But just tell us about your experience in the legal profession, because joining Roche was a breath of fresh air, prior to that, not so. And you were a mum too, which adds another element, doesn’t it?
FA It does. So, I experienced all the obvious forms of dis… You know, I’m a black woman. I experienced racial discrimination at entry level. I have an obviously African name, so when I was trying to get positions early on, it was very difficult. Comparing myself to my peers at university who didn’t have an African name, they were getting positions far quicker than I was. I had to get on the phones and do a cold calling campaign to try and get into corporate law, and that was how tough it...
SB You basically had to fight for your position.
FA I had to fight very hard because, having told my father I wasn’t going to do medicine, and he did support me, I had a lot to prove to him. Because, you know, law was completely new to our family, so I had to make a success of it. So, I faced that hurdle, managed to get into my first entry-level role, and then I had my son. I was married, and at 28 I thought, surely everyone’s having children at this age.
Came back from a year’s maternity leave and realised that I was the only one who seemed to have had a baby. You know, no one else working as a corporate lawyer was having children at that stage.
SB Because with law itself, obviously there’s various avenues, but corporate law is one of the, I wouldn’t say most difficult, but demanding, in the sense that when you are wheeling and dealing, you could be locked away for hours and hours, days, whilst the deal’s being done, couldn’t you?
FA Absolutely. Very long hours because it’s transactional work. You have chief execs and directors as clients. I would often stay up 48 hours at a stretch to close a deal. There was one occasion when it was 72 hours, because you have hard deadlines you have to reach for all sorts of reasons, and it was very difficult coming back and trying to work flexibly around that. It just wasn’t going to happen for me, but no one else had had a baby.
I go back to my earlier point that people were waiting until they became partner before they had their children. I had no concept of that. And it made me very angry, Sally, I have to say, because I wasn’t aware of all these things, and I didn’t think they should be issues.
And I do remember thinking as I left the city for a regional law firm, to carry on my career and have a better balance, that the moment I was in a position to influence change, at least around race and gender, I would, because I was hearing stories like this all the time.
SB So, what has happened since? Max is now 14.
FA Almost 14, yes.
SB That’s a while ago. So, what has happened since? Has there been much improvement for both women in law, but also for black and ethnic minorities in law?
FA Huge inroads have been made around gender. So, most of the top firms have set targets for their partnerships, and those are hard targets they’re working towards. So, of course, that means they have to get the underlying structures in place now to meet the target in three years, in five years, and they’re really committed to that. The Law Society is very committed. The Women Lawyers Division; I do a lot of work with them. We do a lot of surveys around what are the career blockers, and we empower and upskill women all the time to really try and get them in a confident frame of mind, really, so they can progress. So, that’s really doing well.
The race side is a bit more tricky because race is such a massive bucket in itself. It’s very sensitive; lots of cultural bias issues come into play there, which aren’t quite the same on the gender side. Race is all about cultural bias, really.
SB We were just discussing earlier, weren’t we, a report out today from the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, which says race inequality is still entrenched in the UK? If anything, there is very little progress. It said there’s an alarming picture across the board; health, employment, pay, education, justice. It seems an extremely difficult barrier to overcome.
FA It is tough because we’re talking about cultural bias. We’re talking about being able to somehow embrace someone who is fundamentally very different to you; different language, different outlook on life, different types of food that they eat. Their social life may be very different to you.
So, I actually had a partner at a law firm say to me, when I was challenging them about the lack of race diversity, don’t you realise how terrifying it is trying to work with people who are so different to you?
He said, I feel like I’m an endangered species now, being a white male partner in my 50s, because, you know, it’s absolutely terrifying Funke. And I thought… I could see the fear in his eyes. He doesn’t understand.
SB He’s being extremely honest.
FA Very honest, because I was really challenging him, and he came out and said it. And, he said that was replicated across many of the leadership teams at these firms.
So, having said all that though, progress is being made. So, there are a number of firms I volunteer with and help, and they’ve set race targets. They look at broadening access from schools at the age of nine onwards, getting really bright children from ethnic minority backgrounds to experience what it’s like working in a law firm environment.
Then, sponsoring them with bursaries, mentoring, and so on. And then, that builds up the pipeline going forwards. It’s a slow process though, Sally.
SB Let’s talk about the issue of being general counsel at a pharmaceuticals giant. I mean Roche is a giant; world’s biggest maker of cancer drugs.
FA It is.
SB The third biggest pharmaceutical company in the world. An awful lot of staff; 91,700 people working in 150 countries.
So, you’ve already talked about the fact that when it comes to diversity, when it comes to gender issues, it’s pioneering; it’s really pushing the envelope. But as general counsel… Pharmaceuticals is so tightly regulated. There are so many areas in which you’re talking about extremely difficult ethical issues, and yet you’ve got commercial interests. You’ve got shareholders. You need to hit earnings targets, don’t you? How do you balance that? You know, in your role, how do you make difficult decisions, where what’s right for the patient might be completely at odds with the commercial interests of the company?
FA Well, what I will say on that, and this isn’t unique to me by any stretch, everyone in the organisation is wanting to enhance patient care [...]
They have to care about patients, and that’s what gets everyone up in the morning.
Our mission, as an organisation, is doing now what patients need next. That’s at the heart of everything. So, yes, we have shareholders, but actually, our main responsibility is to the patients, and that’s why we invest so much in research and development.
The equivalent of £17 million daily is globally spent by Roche on research and development (R&D) alone. We’re the biggest investor in the healthcare sector, and one of the top five across all industries. People don’t realise that, but those are really weighty figures, and that speaks volumes, because that’s our commitment there to patient care.
Of course, we need to be commercially aware as well, but it is all about the patients for us, and we explore areas of unmet need. We’re often the first in class with different therapy areas. We will go into those areas where there’s genuine unmet need, and that’s something we will commit to.
SB And in terms of the UK market, the NHS is the biggest client, isn’t it?
FA It is our biggest customer.
SB And yet, it’s an extremely difficult one to deal with I would imagine, because it in itself has just got so many challenges. Some are saying the NHS is looking at an annual deficit of £103 billion by 2020. It’s got this insatiable demand for what it offers, but not the money to pay for it.
Tell us about that relationship, and how you manage that, because, of course, it has its own challenges, and yet you want to have access to that massive client.
FA Absolutely, yes we do. We’re very collaborative. We always make sure that we’re in constant open negotiations with the NHS because we want… Again, it’s about driving the value for patients. So, we work very closely with the NHS around the Cancer Drugs Fund, for example.
SB That’s just reopened, hasn’t it?
FA It’s just reopened, but very important for us there was securing access, again, for our patients. I keep coming back to the patient, the p word, but honestly, Sally, that’s what it’s all about for us.
And, you know, whichever industry you work in you will have challenges when you’re having to negotiate work together, but, actually, we’re up for the challenge, and what drives us is patient care.
SB It’s interesting actually because the Cancer Drugs Fund has just reopened. It went way over budget. What this does is it pays for therapies, doesn’t it, that are not deemed to be cost-effective across the board of the National Health Service. It’s very important, isn’t it, for those who’ve got terrible illnesses that need specific drugs, but across the board they’re not going to be available?
SB But there’s this new system coming in to play where, when it goes over budget, it looks like it’s the drugs companies, the likes of you and your rivals, that will have to foot the bill. That’s an interesting concept.
FA It’s an interesting concept, but at the same time, our priority is patient care so we’ll do whatever we can to enable that to happen, and we have a real commitment to that. Yes, there are budgetary issues, and so on, but we’re working with it. We’re working with the system to make it happen for our patients.
SB What about the other organisation… There are so many regulators you have to deal with, aren’t there, both in the UK and in Europe? But the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; that’s NIHCE. Its regime seems to have been broadened in terms of its oversight of decisions, what drugs will be available across the board in the NHS, what won’t.
Quite an interesting role, and, again, another organisation that you have to work closely with.
FA We do, and we have teams within the Roche function who work very closely with NIHCE, for example. We’ve got health economists and, again, my team supports them very strongly around some of the decision-making there. And, again, it’s very collaborative though.
You know, there’s no point fighting against the existing system; we have to work together. We’re all working towards the common good, and we all want patients to get access to these products, so that’s our approach at all times. And my team plays a core part in making sure that happens.
SB Now, let’s have a look at some questions that have been coming in while we’ve been having our conversation.
SB So, here’s one from the UK. Given the jurisdictions that you cover, what are the major compliance challenges that you are facing? And, this viewer says this week. That’s very specific.
FA This week, my goodness me! Some of the contractual issues can be quite interesting, given that not all the jurisdictions might have the exact same contractual framework, so we have to be very mindful of that.
I can become very technical around this. It wouldn’t make a great deal of sense to some of our viewers, but, you know, you can’t always assume that you’re negotiating with another common law jurisdiction, for example. There are huge differences in the framework there.
Data protection; again, there are some slight nuances that are slightly different, depending on which patch you’re having to work with and advise around.
SB The law surrounding that has just gone up and up and up, hasn’t it?
FA It has.
SB It is so detailed now. You’ve got to really watch yourselves, I assume.
FA We do, but we’ve always… We deal with sensitive personal data within the healthcare sector, of course, so we’ve always had to get explicit consent and permissions, informed consent, and so on. None of that is new to us at all, and we take that very seriously. It’s a huge responsibility that goes with processing that data.
SB It’s a very big responsibility, and there’s a lot of fear out there, actually, about an individual’s medical information and where that might end up, especially in this new world of online and technological innovation, where it’s thought that… Suddenly, a company is approaching me telling me about various services they can provide; how do they know that about me? It’s that kind of thought process, isn’t it? We all think that our information is being shared.
FA And I can understand. As a consumer myself, you know we’re all consumers, I can understand why you’d want to protect your information. But, there are some contradictions there as well, I find, some interesting contradictions where… When it comes to things like getting a mobile phone, for example, people are very free with their information there. And yet, in other contexts, they’re not so free with it, so there’s a slight dichotomy there, which I find quite interesting, around data protection.
SB Now, we’ve got a question from Malta.
FA Oh right.
SB What are your main considerations when you look for external legal counsel? Something that we’ve covered to a degree already, but give a bit more detail on that.
FA So, the cultural fit piece is very important for us, and we need to see the diversity reflected in the law firms that we’re working with. We need to see the innovation in their way of thinking. For example, last summer… And this is a very good example to give, actually, in response. I did a really extensive request for proposal across all our external law firms, and the firm that won for the Life Sciences element of the work had such an innovative presentation style.
They looked at a real life issue that we were dealing with at that time, that week in particular, and looked at it from all angles. Not just legal, but the communications side was covered off; everything I’d have to think of, the people I’d have to liaise with, my internal stakeholders, and really showed that they got it. They really understand what it means to be working in-house and dealing with these issues that could have reputational communications elements to them as well.
So, we look for that diversity of thought, that innovative way of dealing with legal issues. It doesn’t just stop at the technical side. We need to see… We look for female leadership. We look for diverse leadership because that will lead into the diversity of thought.
SB And how easy is it to find the people you’re looking for? When you need specific expertise within the legal profession outside of your organisation, is it quite easy to find the people you need?
FA Yes. There’s an oversupply of law firms.
SB I’m sure lawyers don’t want to hear that.
FA Unfortunately, law firms… They don’t want to hear it, but it’s something that I say all the time; I’m very open about it. There are many firms out there that can provide the service. That’s the reality of it.
SB Does that mean you get their services far cheaper?
FA We drive value. I wouldn’t use the word 'cheap' because that has all sorts of connotations about compromising quality.
SB You get better value, let’s put it that way.
FA We get good value, added value, from our external law firms, but there are a lot of firms that could provide the service. So, we have the luxury of being able to be quite particular about the whole cultural fit piece, because I have to think about how they’ll get on with my commercial colleagues if they come on site and need to advise.
And I will very quickly hand over to a commercial colleague, rather than constantly being the go-between. If I have no confidence that they can relate to the Head of Site Services, or whoever it might be, that’s also very important.
So, it’s not just me and my team, it’s others on the site as well.
SB And something that you mentioned earlier is that you try and keep as much as possible in-house because you want to really nurture your in-house team. You want to give them the work, as it were. Is that partly to do with finance as well? Is that to do with resources?
FA Not really.
SB There’s no decision-making from that point of view? So, about budgets, no?
FA Not really. I’m not saying my budget is open-ended by any stretch, but if there’s a need to get the external advice, a valid need, we will secure the budget for it. It’s more about really driving value. I like to use the word value in this context. And, I want to develop my team, so I want to make sure that they’re getting the exposure they need.
It’s good for the internal relationship between my team and the commercial and scientists, and whomever else they might be supporting because we can truly partner with them internally, and not constantly be sending the work out.
There’s no substitute, actually, for having your in-house lawyers dealing with as much of the work as possible. So, it’s a win-win really, across the board.
SB And a question from Argentina now. They’re coming from all over, which is great; keep them coming. From a legal perspective, are you able to comment about what Roche’s expectations are for innovator companies within pharmaceuticals?
FA In what sense? I don’t understand the nuance of that.
SB Well, I would assume, then, for those companies that you’re look… I mean, Roche has done a lot of acquisitions. That’s part of the growth programme, isn’t it, where you’re seeing small innovative companies within pharmaceuticals doing something that is outstanding, that’s interesting, that’s within your product range, as it were.
FA Yes, absolutely.
SB What is Roche looking for, from that point of view, from innovative pharmaceutical companies?
FA That makes a lot more sense now. So, it’s the unmet need element that we look for. We go into those really difficult areas where there might be whole patient pools that have not been addressed; there is no product for them. There is no treatment. It’s not accessible.
We tend to go into those really tough areas, hence the commitment to the R & D spend as well, because you really need to bolster up that side of things. But that’s what drives us.
SB Now, how much is your family background helpful, the fact that your dad and your mum have worked in the healthcare industry during their careers? Obviously, your siblings are in that area as well. Is that really important, do you think?
FA Yes, massively helpful because I understand the NHS very well. Most of my family works within… I’ve got cousins, by the way, who are also doctors, so...
SB You’ve got the inside track on how that’s going.
FA So, I understand what the challenges are from the clinicians’ point of view, and others who support them as well. My father had a very long history with Roche in Nigeria. So, he worked very closely with Roche in Nigeria for many years, and Roche, in particular, was very close to me as a result of that, and stood out from other organisations that I could have ended up working for in an in-house capacity. So, it’s very important, very helpful. Those insights really help.
SB And do you look for that in your team as well, people who’ve got some sort of connection? I mean one of the areas where you’re really trying to help women solicitors are those who are pursuing careers in life sciences, for example. It’s obviously a passion of yours to help people progress in that area.
FA It is. Sure. I suppose on that, in terms of what I look for, for the lawyers coming into my team a good commercial law background is an absolute must, given the focus on contractual work and contractual negotiations.
But after that, I’ll look at the area of the business I’m more likely to be supporting. So, for example, I have someone in my team who was a scientist, you know, had a career as a scientist and suddenly decided that he wanted to become a lawyer.
And, he’s now a lawyer and is outstanding in the way that he supports the scientists, the early stage clinical trial colleagues, because he really understands that whole scientific piece and is also a lawyer.
Last week, he actually said to me that people said, oh my goodness, you actually are a lawyer. It hadn’t crossed their mind that he was a lawyer. They just saw him as being so much a part of their core team, which is fantastic.
So, it really does depend where I’m going to put the person, who they’re going to be supporting. But, a commercial law background is essential. Absolutely essential.
SB Now, let’s focus on pharmaceuticals as an industry, and how that’s developed, also the huge challenges that it has to grapple with. We’ve talked about Roche, how big, diverse, established it is. It’s aiming to launch eight new medications in three years. Now, that’s as it faces the expiration of several key patents, doesn’t it? It’s that constant need to innovate, find the new thing, find the new cure, as it were. Or medicine, as it were.
From the point of view of the legal side of that, what does that bring with it, because, of course, there are just so many controversial areas that come with that, and regulation and areas that you have to be right across.
FA We see tremendous opportunity there for us. With every challenge, there’s actually an opportunity there. We have such pride in what we’re doing for patients, and that’s what drives us forward. So, yes, it can be tricky meandering around the landscape.
It can be very difficult when, for example, with medicines regulation the digital space hasn’t really… The law’s not quite caught up with the ability to use digital technologies and medical apps, and things like that.
There’s a slight sort of disconnect in the legal framework. So, that’s something which the whole industry is having to deal with at the moment. Innovation in law has not really quite caught up with that. But again, it makes it very interesting. If we had easy projects to deal with day in and day out, actually, where’s the fun in that, really?
SB But from the reputational side of things for Roche; recently, it’s not had good press with regards to some drugs like Tamiflu and Accutane, for example. From the reputational point of view, how much of your time is taken up with that side of things, because, of course, that is fundamental, isn’t it, for any firm within pharmaceuticals? Reputation must be one of the most important things to guard.
FA It is. I work closely with the communications team, as do various other team members as well. We do a lot of work around rebuilding trust, where we need to do that.
We’re constantly on a journey around that in certain areas, but, again, the commitment is there, and we continue to work on that. But, you are right, the reputation is very important to us, and we’re very mindful of that, and we put a lot of resource into that to make sure that we can have that bedrock of trust moving forward.
SB When it comes to clinical trials, Roche was challenged some years ago on that issue. And, actually, with the ability now for individuals and organisations to ask for information and data through law, now companies have to be that much more transparent, don’t they?
FA Well, we’ve always been very transparent. There was a lot of… Some of the reporting around that whole issue wasn’t terribly accurate, I have to say. But we are committed to this journey of transparency overall. We’re very open now with all our trial data, and have been for several years.
And again, that tends no to get reported because I think the media likes to latch on to what’s more newsworthy. But, that’s the reality, Sally. we are transparent. We are open, and we continue in this commitment to that transparency journey.
SB Okay, now let’s bring in some more questions from those watching. So, we’ve got one from Mexico. They’re coming from all over today, which is great. How does your role cross over into emerging markets, be it outsourcing research and development, or organising trials? Obviously, you’re very UK/European orientated, but do you ever sort of venture into emerging markets? Does that come under your brief at all?
FA It doesn’t. I don’t look after that region, but one of my colleagues often has to get involved in elements of that. But, we have a legal team that deals with certain regions. You know, it’s all regionally based, so I don’t get too involved in the emerging markets side.
But having said that, I know it’s a core part of our strategy. I’ve got several colleagues who want to go and work in the emerging markets.
SB It’s exciting, isn’t it?
FA Because of the excitement, the opportunity it offers, and, again, that value we can bring to patients there. It’s really remarkable.
SB And, in terms of where you crossover… Obviously, you’re general counsel for Roche UK, but there is the global GC, isn’t there? You do have a support network above you.
FA I do.
SB Which must be very important.
FA Very important. So, I have a direct line contact with our Dr Keller, who is our group general counsel. I get on very well with him. He’s been incredibly supportive of my leadership, and all sorts of things that I’ve done. The group Corporate Compliance Officer… Because I’m also Compliance Officer for the UK, so I have that hat as well. Urs Jaisli, he’s very supportive again. Again, I have a direct line of contact to him, and I see them fairly regularly because we get together fairly regularly to sort of share learnings and best practice, and continue to improve the robustness of our systems, and so on.
SB Where are the areas where you might be more drawn into countries outside of your remit? Is it things like supply chain, for example, or is it when you maybe have employers that are under your remit but have gone overseas, that kind of thing?
FA Global mobility, absolutely. So, that tends to… Because Welwyn has a lot of people coming in and out all the time. We’re a very good hub for talent, so a lot of people go from Welwyn to other places. The whole clinical development side is an area where we have to work very closely together, and really prioritise around that as an organisation.
Data protection is another very important area that, again, we have to be really well aligned on a regional basis, because it’s a pan-European law that applies. So, these are some of the examples. I hope that sort of answers your question. We work very closely together with them, and that’s the key point I want to make.
SB Now, another one from Argentina. What are the legal implications for you, in terms of the growth of generics and biosimilars? This is the big challenge, isn’t it, to a degree? Partly why Roche is pushing ahead with getting new medicines.
FA We welcome the competition...Everyone needs to have patients at the heart of what they’re doing. Let’s not forget that this is what this is all about. It’s actually about the patient care, so, for us, we want to carry on upping our game.
We want to continue innovating, so we welcome that competition. It’s not something that we shy away from in any way, and that’s why we’re often first in class with areas of unmet need, as I mentioned earlier. We really welcome the opportunity to bring something new to patients all the time.
SB Do you think that, on this issue of generics and biosimilars, patients looking for medicines… Perhaps they can’t afford the ones that are prescribed, and they go online, they go elsewhere. Do you feel that the big drug companies have a responsibility from that point of view as well?
Obviously, it’s not necessarily your drugs they’re accessing, but because of price, because of pressures, they’re going online getting things that could actually do them more harm than good.
FA What’s important there is that it should be clinically driven. The decision-making around which products, and so on, actually is a clinical decision.
I mean, I can say that coming from a family of doctors. It has to be. Your clinician is the best-placed person to tell you which product, and prescribing, and so on, and I don't think any drug company has any place in that whatsoever.
SB Right, okay. Now, let’s have a look at some other areas of interest. Of course, for you, being based in the UK, Brexit is something that’s happened very recently that changes many aspects. For the pharmaceuticals industry, what changes does that bring, the decision for the UK to leave the European Union?
FA At the current time, we really don’t know for sure, and because we don’t know what option of 'out' is actually being looked at currently. And until we see that, I really can’t comment, Sally, one way or the other.
I’m, as are a lot of people, quite surprised by the result, but then you have to move on from that and think, okay, what opportunities are there here? Where can we actually really try and shape and influence even better outcomes for our patients? So, that’s the way we're looking at it now, as a whole industry actually, not just unique to Roche.
But, because we don’t know what model is going to end up becoming the model we follow, it’s very difficult to comment on what may, or may not…
And lots of law firms regularly spout out newsletters, and often they conflict in what they think might happen, because no one knows currently.
SB One of the concerns is it could mean that innovation is lost here in the UK. And, it’s one of the hubs in a way, within the pharmaceutical industry, the UK, in terms of innovation. But, if talent chooses to leave because the conditions change, the environment changes here in the UK, what would that mean for your organisation?
FA Well, obviously, if you’re losing talent that’s never good for any industry, but what I do know is the Office For Life Sciences, for example, is really committed to making sure that we can retain the talent, and still have this innovative hub, and coming and going; people being able to come freely from different nationalities, different view points, because you need that.
With a scientific process, you really do need diversity of thought. You need lots and lots of different scientists looking at the issue in a very different way. And I know we’ve had their commitment to that, and the government surely cannot want… You know, we don’t want to lose the competitive edge as an innovation hub around that, but until we have clearer visibility of what will definitely happen, it’s pure innovation [sic - probably should be 'speculation'].
SB Have any of your clients been talking to you about the situation? Did you have one of those Brexit emergency meetings we’ve heard about at various organisations?
FA We did have discussions, and we gave employees the opportunity to ask questions, raise concerns; that’s an on-going process. As is the case with many organisations, we’ve set up a team and a committee around that. That’s not unique to us. I don’t think there’s a single organisation that hasn’t done something similar.
We keep a very close eye on developments on a weekly basis, reaching out proactively as well, to find out what can we do to help with shaping the outcome. But again, I don’t believe that’s unique to us. As an industry, that’s something we’re committed to through the ABPI as well, the membership organisation. So, we’ll just have to watch and see how it all pans out.
SB Now, in terms of looking ahead, what’s the next big thing for the industry within pharmaceuticals? One of the articles I was reading, actually, was those very high up within your organisation talking about the fact that it’s a combination of medicines for patients.
It’s about several things helping an individual become healthier, or overcome disease, as opposed to one fantastic, perfect answer.
FA What’s very interesting is the whole area of human genomes, Genomics England and what they’re doing there, because if that can be cracked in some way, trying to see what the genetic footprint might be as an early indication before you even get the sickness itself, and the disease.
Just imagine, Sally, how that would revolutionise the whole landscape. And, the government’s really committed to that, and, as an industry, we’re working very closely with Genomics England. It’s more personalised, the healthcare now, overall.
SB A bespoke service?
FA Yes, it’s more and more personalised about the individual, and what they might actually, specifically want. There are many more combination therapies coming through, as you’ve rightly pointed out, because no one therapy may be the best way forward.
So, again, it’s just looking at how… You know, we’re looking at an ageing population, we’re looking at challenges around Alzheimer’s and dementia, people living longer with co-morbidities, and the challenges that raises, and how can we try and help earlier on in the stage, before it fully develops into whatever it ends up being.
So, it’s exciting.
SB And what challenges does that bring for your team, in terms of the law? Because, as you’ve mentioned, with technology, medical apps, and what have you, quite often the law is behind. It’s not there. It’s not in place, and, actually, you need to make decisions.
You need to protect the company, and that kind of thing, so how do you overcome those obstacles? FA We’re very pragmatic in our approach in those areas where we’re not sure, and we…You know, I say to my team, we’re managing risk, actually, what we’re doing on a daily basis.
Every decision we make has an element of risk attached to it, and the best you can do is actually inform your client of what the risk could be, and then leave it for your client to decide; are they prepared to take that decision knowing what the risk is, or, actually, do they think, you know what, it’s probably not worth going for?
So, everything falls within that. And there’ll be some areas where we’re prepared to take that risk, and other areas where, frankly, we won’t.
SB Now, we’ve got a question from Nigeria, which is great.
SB What is your advice for in-house lawyers whose employers are dealing with cost cutting in difficult financial times?
FA Really show the value you bring to the organisation because, obviously, working in-house, you’re not generating revenue. You’re not a fee-earner, as you would be in a law firm. You’re a core support function, but you’re a support function nonetheless.
So, show that you can bring more to the table than the purely technical side. My role now… Although I’m a solicitor, it’s all about my leadership now. It’s all about how I can support the strategy and the vision. I report in to the General Manager, so it completely changes the way that I’m adding value. And likewise with my team, that strategic agility is so important.
So, I talk to them about really becoming enmeshed in the industry, understanding what’s happening, horizon scanning and trying to find out what’s coming up, so you can even tell your colleagues, who may not be aware of certain things.
Those are the sorts of added value things; training, really upskilling your commercial colleagues.
SB You’re extremely positive, and you’re someone that wants to mentor and that wants to encourage. But, what’s your sense of how the industry is, because you’ve already mentioned that when you need external help, there’s a lot out there?
There’s an oversupply; you can cherry pick the very best, which is fantastic for you. But, for those who are working in those organisations, what’s the general feeling? Is it similar to you? Do they feel supported?
You know, you’re mentoring those who are women in law firms, but also ethnic minorities within law firms. Is morale okay, or is it low? Where is it?
FA Depends on the firm. It depends on the firm, and where they are around the inclusion journey. So, less about diversity and bringing a diverse talent pool in, and actually making people feel included. And I often say, diversity is about being… It’s like being invited to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance, having a few canapés, a cocktail or two; it’s a very different thing.
The firms who have got the inclusion piece right, and by that I mean things like employee networks, for example, with really engaging speakers coming in, that are open to everyone. You don’t have to be black to be part of the multicultural network, for example. That can go a long way.
If you have really senior partnership support of that network, it really helps. So, those sorts of firms, I hear very positive noises from the ladies, and indeed gents, that I’ve mentored there.
The firms that have done nothing whatsoever… And they’ll know exactly who they are, so I won’t name and shame. Morale is not so good there because their overall decision-making is still quite archaic. If you think about it, if they’re not thinking innovatively about recruitment and how to engage their employees, actually, their overall decision-making probably isn’t what it should be either.
SB But currently, how easy is it to move? If you’re working for one of those firms that you wouldn't name and shame, how easy is it to get to the one where they are innovative, where they are supportive and mentoring?
FA Depends on the practice area. So, some areas of practice are very buoyant. Again, post-recession…
SB Which areas are those?
FA Corporate has really picked up, arbitration, litigation, and so on. And it’s very cyclical with law.
Some areas are buoyant during a downturn; other areas are not. Areas like personal injury are struggling somewhat because there were changes in the law recently. I’ve got a couple of friends, and it’s been very difficult for them to keep progressing in their careers, and therefore, they’re more likely to stay at the firm because there aren’t as many jobs out there.
So, it does really depend on the practice area.
SB It’s supply and demand isn’t it at the end of the day.
FA It really is; you can’t get away from that.
SB Back to basics. No, you can’t. Here’s another one in the UK. What advice would you give to a 28-year-old private practice lawyer - this is very specific - who aspires to be both a mother and a partner in a law firm, or to work in an in-house senior role? What’s the best place to be? That’s a difficult one, isn’t it?
FA Yes, it’s tricky. All things being equal, I’d always opt for the senior in-house legal role. You’re more likely to… You’re not a fee earner, and the person who phoned in will know exactly what I mean, so your deliverables aren’t about generating revenue.
SB That pressure is off.
FA That pressure is off. It’s a different pressure, which is its own pressure, but it’s not generating revenue. And I find, personally, it’s much easier to balance that with home life than having to put the hours in. Hours and hours and hours.
SB In an in-house role, do you think you’re more likely to get flexible working options?
SB Those kind of options, as opposed to a law firm?
FA Definitely. All the statistics back that up, yes. But, the key thing is to have good quality childcare. If you’re going to decide to have a baby… For me, personally, I had an au pair living in with us for years, until very recently.
SB And presumably… Because, actually, how old was Max when you moved to Roche?
FA He was about nine.
SB So, actually, you had a long time as a mum within law firms before you did that.
FA Yes, I did. SB So, presumably, you were working hours and hours on end when you were doing deals.
FA I was. The last two law firms I worked for were regional practices, so the hours weren’t quite as bad. But, there were seven years I spent in Central London when I was working…
SB That’s a long time.
FA A long time; very long hours. Really tough, but I enjoyed it. It had its time.
SB So, an au pair living in the home. That’s essential when you’ve got that kind of a job isn’t it? Or a nanny?
FA Very important because the after school care issue is a real problem. You can’t drop everything in the middle of the day to pick up your child if the nursery phones you and says… You know, you just can’t do that, so having someone living in is really important, I think.
SB Right, there you go. There’s some specific advice for that 28-year old who got in touch. And we’ve got another one here. It says, Brexit aside, the EU general data protection regulation will still apply to UK companies.
FA It will do.
SB Is the regulation a benefit or a burden? And it’s true actually, a lot of regulation, whatever we negotiate regarding our relationship with Europe, will stay in place, won’t it?
FA Yes. I like the new regulation, I have to say. I like the sort of one-stop shop, and the person who asked this question will know exactly what I’m talking about. I like the fact it recognises that there was disharmony across member states, because we had a directive before, and everyone could adopt in different ways.
I’m so relieved that we finally got there, because it’s been years and years in discussion, and so on.
SB Well, it makes your life that much easier doesn’t it?
FA It does. Now we have a bit more certainty, we know what’s what. I’m very happy about the Safe Harbor situation having been resolved now as well, with Privacy Shield for the US and…
SB How does that affect pharmaceutical companies, if you can explain?
00:47:46 FA Well, we’re a global organisation, so Safe Harbor is transfers to the US. And America doesn’t have the same framework as Europe at all, so what we did have was this Safe Harbor regime, where you can contractually sign up as an organisation and have European-equivalent-type standards apply.
But, there were recent cases that said that Safe Harbor wasn’t actually safe, and overnight it disappeared and was invalid, and we had a state of flux for a while. We’ve got a new regime now called the Privacy Shield, which has addressed some of the gaps around Safe Harbor.
SB Is that a better regime?
FA Potentially. It’s only just been finalised in the last month or so, actually, the final rubber-stamping. And potentially, yes, it is a better way. It does address some of the gaps that we had previously, but we’ll just have to see how it all pans out.
SB From your point of view, because that’s an example, that situation, the Safe Harbor going overnight because of a ruling in Europe, and Privacy Shield coming in… From your point of view… Because this was all part of the debate, wasn’t it, about Brexit? About whether we should or shouldn’t leave the European Union, this sense that we’ve lost some sort of autonomy to make our own legal choices, and our own laws; we’re being dictated to from Brussels. But that’s an example of where it’s worked, isn’t it? Would you say?
FA I think so. With the data protection, there were real issues with the fact that everyone could adopt slightly differently. And, we’ve always had the option of either a directive, which is almost advisory but you can decide what you want to do with it, and a regulation, where everyone has to do exactly the same thing. So, that’s always been there.
There are pros and cons to all of these processes, of course, Sally. Everything has its benefits. Everything has its burdens. But I’m just waiting to see what option we go for around Brexit now, because there could be real opportunities there.
SB Another change that's come into place in the UK is the Modern Slavery Act. This was something that was brought into place by Theresa May, who was the Home Secretary at the time, obviously now, newly appointed Prime Minister.
What does that mean for you as organisations, because it really puts the burden on you, doesn’t it, to prove you are going right through your supply chain to make sure there’s no abuse going on? Did that really increase your workload, that coming into play or not?
FA Not particularly, because you should be doing that anyway, actually. If you’re…
SB But some organisations were not.
FA Well, clearly they weren’t, but actually, if you’re a responsible organisation, you should already… That should be part of your DNA anyway. So, for us, it hasn’t been a massive overhaul because we actually had all the data. We had everything in place already; we are already on it.
So, for those organisations who weren’t on it, actually, thank goodness we have the law to say that you have to publicise your statement on your website, and all the rest of it. But, actually, if you're responsible, you should have been doing that anyway.
SB And it’s quite interesting, isn’t it, because in some ways the UK is… I wouldn’t say pioneering; I wouldn’t go that far. But, ahead of many other countries in Europe, and elsewhere in the world, from that point of view. In terms of the law, as it were, with regards to issues of gender and equality, and that kind of thing, where are we at in UK, would you say?
FA It’s an interesting one because we’ve got a very broad mix of nationalities in the UK, but there are pockets of the UK where inclusion might be a real issue. So, London and the South East is a bit of a hub, and a few other urban large cities in the UK that would fall within that category, where you would think that there’s diversity everywhere, and then you suddenly drive out a few miles, and realise that, actually, that may not be representative of the whole of the UK.
Having said that though, we are very diverse as a patch within Europe, compared to a number of other European countries. You know, intermarriage, inter-racial relationships, and so on; people don’t bat an eyelid here, really, in the way that… Certainly in America it’s a real issue if there are crossed racial lines.
Lots of racial tensions there, at a completely different level to what we experience in the UK.
SB And are you encouraged by what our new Prime Minister had to say when she did her speech outside 10 Downing Street? She mentioned all those groups of people who struggle to, I think her words were, reach where their talent should take them, because of the colour of their skin, or their gender, or other issues they might be grappling with like social background, or even mental health issues.
FA Yes. I was greatly… I mean she covered all the diversity strands.
SB She ticked all the boxes, didn’t she?
FA It was incredible because one of my concerns, with everything that happened after Brexit, was the increase in the number of racial crimes, and crime against other minorities. Polish colleagues were being abused and all of that as well.
SB And that was mentioned in that report today.
FA So, it was a real wake up call, and I thought, gosh… But it showed that she was really aware that that was what everyone was thinking about at the time, and I was greatly encouraged by that. I just want to see, now, how she goes about levelling the playing field though. It’s a very ambitious thing to say.
SB Exactly. It was extremely ambitious and, of course, her first job is to negotiate our exit from the European Union, which will not be easy at all.
SB So, what keeps you awake at night? As general counsel of Roche UK, in that role, what are you thinking about? What’s most on your mind in terms of concerns?
FA Market access keeps me up at night.
SB In the UK specifically?
FA In the UK specifically, because we’re behind other developed European countries, certainly, when it comes to cancer drug access, which is why the Cancer Drugs Fund came into being.
SB And is that just because of money? Being behind.
FA It’s complicated. It’s the way that the drugs are paid for. It’s the NHS Trust structure. There are lots of elements to that. Our clinicians are more conservative in prescribing new drugs generally, compared to others across Europe.
But market access and getting our medicines to patients who need them, and the difficulties around that, does keep me up. I’ve had family members who’ve had to be treated by our drugs. Several close family members are alive today, or lived longer, because of that.
So, there’s that personal element to it, and also just thinking, there are patients out there who need these products.
SB And don’t you think that will become more difficult in time? Because, of course, the pressure on the National Health Service in terms of funding is a constant issue that doesn’t seem to be improving, and in terms of the sheer numbers of people… Because, as you’ve mentioned, we are living longer. We have new challenges in terms of healthcare that are more complicated and difficult to deal with, not to mention mental health challenges that seem to be coming to the fore as well, more and more.
FA Not if we continue collaborating. There’s a lot of joint working going on around some of these patient-pathway-type decisions as well, because there’s a lot that goes into the whole pathway beyond the drug, and we do a lot of work with Trusts on improving the pathway for patients, the service delivery, in its entirety, of which the medicine is but a part.
So, looking at it holistically and with a collaborative way of thinking, I think there’s tremendous opportunity there. Of course, the budgetary concerns are there, but I think there is plenty of scope to really support the NHS around this.
SB Do you get pressure from governments to come up with the Holy Grail; the cure to this, or the cure to that? I’m just remembering when Ebola was a real scare, and there was talk that the government was talking to GlaxoSmithKline, or this company, or that company, to go forward with finding a vaccination. Do you ever come under that kind of pressure?
FA It depends on what the therapy area is. It depends on whether or not there’s a genuine area of unmet need. It depends what the company’s focus is in terms of therapy areas as well. So, that’s not an easy question to answer. We prioritise areas of unmet need anyway, so do we feel under pressure? I’m not sure if we could put it that way, really.
SB Right, let’s get some more questions from you, who are watching around the world. It’s great you’ve been sending so many in. So, this one says, fines can be imposed if pharma companies don’t meet their drug safety obligations. What is your strategy to eliminate the potential imposition of these kinds of penalties?
FA We do a lot of training. We devote a lot of investment, time, in making sure staff globally are trained around pharmacovigilance, which is what this whole body of drug safety reporting goes into.
We’re very aware of our responsibility as a manufacturer of the products. It’s so important that this data is made available after we have the licence.
So, all Roche staff, globally, are aware of what we need to do, and we’re annually trained on that, and we have to do it. If you don’t do it you get disciplined. You know, people can be… You can lose your job ultimately if you don’t do the training.
And we also, specifically my team, support the drug safety team a lot around some of the contractual frameworks, things around supplier oversight, of course, because we use a number of third parties to help us with various things, and these safety requirements would also apply to them. So, we make sure that we manage our suppliers [?] really well.
We’re looking at even better ways of doing that, so they understand what it’s like for us, as an organisation having this responsibility, and how can they help us to actually meet that responsibility as a representative, as a supplier.
SB Brief answer to this next one because we are running out of time. This question; you said that GCs now have a more strategic role in companies. What specific elements are you involved in in terms of strategy?
FA So, we have five-year goals currently that we’re working towards. One of them is market access, unsurprisingly. So, I’m very involved in that and helping with NHS England discussions, Cancer Drugs Fund, and so on.
Instilling trust, improving transparency, building trust with our customers… It’s very difficult to give a brief answer to this. I know we’re running out of time, but I hope that gives you a flavour anyway.
SB All right. Well, we will wrap it up there.
FA Thank you.
SB It’s been fantastic to talk to you, and thank you so much for just being so open and willing to share on some trickier questions, and some interesting elements as well.
And many thanks to you, too, for being involved in this conversation with Funke Abimbola, who has given us, I’m sure you would agree, a very insightful look into what it means to be general counsel of one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world.
And don’t forget, as well, that you can watch this on demand, the on demand version on the IBA website. So, you can watch it all over again, or, yes, dig deep, or tell other colleagues to tune in as well. Thanks for your time.