Read the extended 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: How did you advance within Bristol-Myers Squibb?
A: 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. 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. We want to make people feel like they’re part of a community. We’re using media to do that.
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. We had to be comfortable 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.
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.
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.
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’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. 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: 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. 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.