GlaxoSmithKline vice-president of legal: Health service

GlaxoSmithKline vice-president of legal Sean Roberts’ appetite for a challenge has led to the creation of two industry legal bodies for the pharmaceutical sector

In his 15 years of working at pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Sean Roberts has held a range of posts and he is first to admit that his current remit is an extremely broad one. The company has a 630-strong legal team that supports the company’s 100,000-plus employees worldwide and Roberts’ role as vice-president of legal operations corporate (US and UK), regional and dermatology requires him to manage a legal team of approximately 50 people.

Sean Roberts


Title: Vice-president, legal operations corporate (UK and US), regional and dermatology

Reporting to: Dan Troy, senior vice-president and general counsel

Number of employees: 100,000-plus

Turnover: £27.4bn (2011)

Global legal capability: 630

Main external law firms in the UK: Addleshaw Goddard, Allen & Overy, Arnold & Porter, Cleary Gottlieb, Eversheds, Nabarros, Simmons & Simmons, Slaughter and May

Job lots

“I’m in charge of the corporate legal group managing everything from input into our annual reports, legal support for our finance, tax and treasury functions as well as global IT and HR support,” he says. “Additionally, I’m responsible for ensuring the delivery of overall legal support to our global dermatology business and I also have a geographical remit whereby I’m responsible for legal service delivery across Africa, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. As well as all this I sit on the company’s disclosure committee and am responsible for legal aspects of its anti-corruption programme.”

Roberts’ emerging markets team is spread across countries including Dubai, Egypt, Ukraine, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Next year he plans to hire at least one lawyer on the ground in Algeria, a lawyer in Morocco and possibly one in Ivory Coast. In addition to these lawyers, 12 of his team are based in the UK and the rest span GSK’s offices in Philadelphia and the company’s US commercial headquarters in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Despite coming from a medical family, the pharma sector was not his first calling but Roberts was always attracted to the idea of working in emerging markets.

“When I trained and subsequently qualified at Simmons & Simmons I didn’t know what sector I wanted to focus on, but I’ve always been happy working anywhere where emerging markets are involved,” he says. “The diversity this presents in terms of workload is energising.”

Although he only moved into his present role in 2011 – previously his focus was purely on emerging markets, including Asia – Roberts has relished the challenges that have come with the post.

“It’s great to be able to balance my emerging markets work with the corporate legal and dermatology roles, as this gives me access to some talented colleagues in more central roles and therefore the opportunity to learn and benefit from their expertise,” he adds.

Crackdown on corruption

Throughout his tenure at GSK, Roberts has also developed a strong interest in anti-corruption issues and has been heavily involved in the setting up and launching of Aclegal, an industry association focused on anti-corruption issues.

“There are 16 member companies which is great; if you’re going to benchmark issues on a competitive basis you’ve got to draw on a good body of data,” he insists.

Sean Roberts

What’s more, after returning to the UK from Philadelphia where he was a transactional lawyer for GSK, Roberts was appointed lead counsel for global drug safety. As part of that role he helped establish an industry legal group that analyses the complex field of drug safety legislation and regulation.

“Much like the anti-corruption group – and while we draw on outstanding support from Sidley Austin – member companies rather than law firms drive the agenda, and this keeps it relevant,” he stresses.

The company’s focus on inclusivity and diversity has also been something that has really impressed Roberts.

“It says something about GSK that in 2008 it hired Dan Troy, – an observant Jew based in Washington DC and former chief counsel to the US Food and Drug Administration – as general counsel,” says Roberts. “While being GC of a global company is effectively a job that requires you to be on call 24/7, GSK looked beyond the practical difficulties of accommodating Dan’s observance of his religion, whereby he is effectively off the grid from Friday night to Saturday night. I admire that. It says ‘we look at the whole range of talent and make things work’.”

While he does not have a set list of external law firms he turns to, Roberts is interested in the idea of establishing a formal panel for certain types of work.

“We operate an electronic reverse auction-style process for all work over a pre-determined monetary threshold, but don’t yet have a panel system in the UK,” he confirms. “This is something I’m keen to push for to enhance value for the company and the law firms, and to reduce the amount of time we spend interacting with a wide range of firms.”

As for emerging markets, it may be more tricky to find the right lawyers for the job, but Roberts’ years of experience make him confident that he knows precisely what he is looking for in his external legal counsel.

“For emerging markets you need a lawyer with impeccable integrity who, at the same time, speaks the language and understands the nuances of the legal system,” he says. “I pick lawyers because they’re street fighters and can fight their own corner, not just because they know how to be a good lawyer -which has to be a given.”

For an analysis of job prospects in the legal life sciences sector, go to our Jobwatch page.

Funke Abimbola

Funke Abimbola

Managing counsel UK & Ireland, Roche

The pharmaceutical industry is under the spotlight for several reasons. Transparency is paramount, with a push for even more across the industry. This applies not only to interactions with healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients (with fair market value applying to payments or transfers of value made to HCPs), but also in relation to clinical data.

Discussions and negotiations around value-based pricing in

the UK are ongoing, with the recently appointed health secretary having to get to grips with the issue quickly in leading the negotiations.

Managing regulatory change has always been an important part of operating in a heavily regulated sector, but never more so than now, given the changes to the NHS being brought about by the recent Health and Social Care Act.

Furthermore, the increasing influence of payers in the sector has highlighted the fact that cost-effectiveness and budget impact should now be considered as important as a drug’s safety, efficacy and quality when it comes to accessing the market.

While it poses some challenges for pharmaceutical drugs, the changing landscape also provides some genuine opportunities.

Maintaining the R&D pipeline has never been more important as the sector faces a ‘patent cliff’, with a number of leading products facing loss of exclusivity in the next few years.

All in all, this is an exciting time to be working in the pharma industry – and for patients continuing to benefit from R&D innovations in the sector.