In conversation: Jean Liu, general counsel, Seattle Genetics

Former molecular biologist Jean Liu tells GC about the challenges and rewards of working for a biotech company at the forefront of innovation in cancer treatment.

GC: Could you tell me about your background and how you came to be working in-house for Seattle Genetics?

Jean Liu (JL): I started out as a scientist, not a lawyer. I went to grad school to study molecular biology, but when I started my PhD programme, I realised that I didn’t have the temperament to focus on very specific, minute details – I preferred to have a broader vision.

I ended up in law school more or less by chance, interned at several large law firms and essentially gave up the notion of working in science. But when I started working in law, my technical background meant that I was assigned primarily cases relating to technology – particularly biotech.

After four years, I made a choice to move away from litigation. I spent time working in Silicon Valley for the Venture Law Group, a boutique firm that specialises in startups, and while there, a pharmaceutical spin-off company offered me a job as one of their in-house counsel. I spent 13 years there, before progressing to bigger and bigger companies.

GC: What is Seattle Genetics and what does the company do?

JL: We are a public biotechnology company focused on oncology, and our purpose is to develop therapies for cancer. The company’s mission is to provide better options for people with cancer alongside traditional therapeutic drugs, and we are particularly known for developing an antibody-drug treatment that targets just the cancer cells, hopefully sparing the rest of the patient.

GC: How has the company changed since you came on board in 2014?

JL: We are on a really tremendous growth trajectory. We are about a thousand employees now, whereas when I joined, we were roughly 600. We are looking to put many more development-stage drugs into our pipeline and, in addition, we are trying to expand internationally.

GC: How big is your legal team?

JL: I have about 27 people in my legal team, many of which work in general legal, handling corporate affairs, and which comprise only a handful of lawyers with several more paralegals. I’ve got an equivalent-sized intellectual property group, which handles all the patents and the proprietary rights law for the company. Then I’ve got a smallish-but-growing compliance group, which mainly focuses on healthcare compliance because, as you may know, selling and developing pharmaceutical drugs is covered by a lot of restrictions and regulations.

GC: Do you envision the compliance team growing in the near future?

JL: Very much so. We’ve recently added a key person to do compliance for Europe, because that’s the first international area that we are heading into. There are many areas of similarity between the US and European rules, but there are also many areas of difference, and so we need to make sure that we hire people who have local understanding of the laws applicable to those areas and the areas where there’s great divergence. We need to avail ourselves of the right kind of talent.

GC: What are the components of your own role?

JL: As a member of the senior management team, I would say that over 50% of my time is probably spent understanding and guiding the company’s business. I sit on the executive committee and various different research and development committees, which focus on the core of the company’s business: how do we develop our drugs and what kind of strategic choices do we make?

Probably the majority of my time is not spent on legal matters, but my deep understanding of the company business and where it’s going allows me to spend the rest making sure that the company’s legal function is fully supportive, and is managing the risk appropriately. I have very senior lawyers who handle most of the complex work of implementing the company’s strategic initiatives – for example, making sure that we have the appropriate agreements in place with partners who are commercialising drugs with us, or that we have the right operational agreements with all our vendors throughout the world as we do research and development and conduct clinical trials. We spend a lot of time implementing appropriate intellectual property protection to cover the innovations that our scientists invent, and then ensuring we comply with the applicable regulations when we market our products.

GC: What are the benefits of being corporate secretary as well as general counsel?

JL: Being a corporate secretary, there’s a lot of work supporting our board of directors, which I share with our chief operating officer and our CEO, as well as the rest of the senior management team. Making sure that the board has a very comprehensive understanding of what’s going on in the company at all levels is critical.

The role of board secretary has its own specific functional roles, but one really important aspect is that you sit in board meetings and, as a result, you have a very good understanding of the board’s strategy for the company. That allows you to see around corners, because you understand exactly where they are trying to target the company’s trajectory, which allows you to push those initiatives down further in the organisation and confirm that the proper tactics are in place for where we want to go.

GC: How important is your own background as a scientist to being able to operate effectively as a general counsel in a company like Seattle Genetics?

JL: Our current chief operating officer doesn’t have a scientific degree, but he was able to do my job extremely well, and he is very adept at all things scientific and clinical. But although not essential, my technical background is extraordinarily helpful because it gives me a leg up and a common vocabulary to understand many things – there are a lot of basics that I can lean on. Having said that, there is very specific industry and company knowledge that is required. One thing I tell my people about the role of general counsel is that you cease to become a specialist in any area of the law, but you become a specialist in your company and your company’s business. So even if you have a scientific background, you still have to do a lot of learning, and tailor it very specifically to your company.

GC: Could it almost be advantageous to not have a scientific background in some cases?

JL: Yes, and I think this is why it’s important for every functional area, including legal, to have a real diversity of talent – people who come from engineering, from technical fields, or frankly people who are psychology majors and so on. There’s a real strength in having diversity of thinking, because I do think that scientists have a common training, and we all go down the same pathway to diagnosing problems. Sometimes solutions are presented in a way that isn’t necessarily problem solving but brainstorming, or looking at it from a broader picture of: what is the real essence of the issue here? I have several people in my legal group who aren’t scientists by training.

GC: What are the biggest things that the legal department has been dealing with for Seattle Genetics over the past 12 to 18 months?

JL: As I mentioned earlier, there’s been exponential growth in our company and we are transitioning from having a smaller company’s legal problems to a larger company’s legal problems. As a result, there’s been an increase in deal work arising from collaborations and transactions.

There’s also been a lot of activity on the dispute resolution / litigation side. We’ve added some new personnel with expertise in that area because of how much work it represents.

GC: What is the achievement that you are most proud of from your time at Seattle Genetics?

JL: What I am really most proud of is that I have recruited and built a great group. The people that I managed to bring in to the company have been stellar, top-notch lawyers who are really experienced and have a thoughtful way of providing great service to the company, as well as a balance of smartness, ethics, and interest in being efficient and moving the company’s business along.

I think I’ll come full circle and say one of the great things about being a general counsel is that you have a huge purview into the business in addition to solving legal problems, so it’s a very fun job.