Pharma wiles: Robert Fairless, Merck Serono

Robert Fairless

When the UK and Ireland arm of German biopharmaceuticals ­company Merck Serono hired Robert ­Fairless in 2008 it was taking on its first in-house lawyer.

It also got a lawyer with a sense of adventure.

Fairless used to work at the ­European Aeronautic Defence and Space ­Company (EADS) in the space ­division, which saw him involved with the Mars Rover, the Beagle 2 and the International Space Station. One of his lasting memories from his role is watching women sewing silver blankets for astronauts.

“It was hugely interesting,” says Fairless. “Not something you plan to go into, but it was fantastic to walk around the factories. But at Merck Serono we’re doing more with a smaller team.”
Merck Serono’s global business employs 36,000 people and produces a diverse range of industrial and ­commercial products, from cosmetics to LCD displays to plastics.

The UK and Ireland subsidiary is much smaller at 220 employees and is split into pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Its most recognisable products are Seven Seas cod liver oil and the decongestant Nasivin, but neurology is one of the company’s most important areas of business, where it finds itself up against rivals Novartis and Biogen Idec.

As head of legal compliance and company secretary, Fairless runs a small legal team comprising one lawyer (Fairless), one contracts officer and one compliance officer. It is a group that Fairless built from scratch, and when he first arrived he needed to get his new department recognised.

“I had to make sure that legal was involved in every part of the ­business, which included attending sales ­meetings in remote parts of the UK. I had to understand everyone’s roles,” he says.
There are not many industries as wrapped in legal tape as pharmaceuticals. The European Commission completed its inquiry into competition in the biopharma sector in July last year. The final report required ­companies to collect information on their commercial arrangements over the past 20 years.

This work falls to Fairless and is an overarching issue that influences the way he aims to educate the company’s employees. And that means getting his point across in some unusual ways.
To ingrain his department’s ­presence in the minds of his ­colleagues, Fairless distributed key fobs printed with the legal team’s ­contact details.

He also produced a code of ­conduct regarding the promotion of products in the UK, which lets the company’s 100-strong army of ­salespeople check the legality of their sales techniques.
“I tried to be innovative because I’ve never been to a company where there are so many people out of the office,” he says. “The fob and the code of conduct let them know there are people back at HQ helping them. We’re trying to get the business units to approach us rather than acting as the police of the company. ­Compliance is often saying ’no’ to things – we want to be more ­creative.”

In one of the more unusual moves, 29-year-old Fairless held a Who Wants to be a Millionaire? quiz with the sales team. He asked how many compliance ­regulations they thought would be broken in various scenarios. “It was educational but fun – the best way to do legal training,” he says.

Fairless also employed Taylor Wessing to undertake a mock dawn raid at the company’s offices, with four of the firm’s lawyers acting as the OFT.

“It was a useful exercise,” says ­Fairless. “It showed employees ­exactly what could happen and ­promoted the value of the legal team. They quickly realised.”

Name: Robert Fairless
Title: Head of legal and compliance (UK & Ireland)
Company: Merck Serono (UK & Ireland)
Sector: Biopharmaceuticals
Company turnover: £140m (UK & Ireland)
Number of employees: 220 (UK & Ireland)
Legal capability: Three (UK & Ireland)
Main external law firms: Arnold & Porter, Fasken Martineau, Taylor Wessing
Robert Fairless’s CV

1998-2002: LLB (Hons) Law and European Law, University of London and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
2002-03: LPC, Nottingham Law School
Work history:
2004-06: Trainee, DLA Piper, London
2006-08: Legal counsel, European ­Aeronautic Defence and Space Company
2008-09: Legal counsel (UK and Ireland), Merck Serono
2009-present: Head of legal and compliance (UK & Ireland), Merck Serono