Good Medicine

Jonathan Wasserman juggles litigation in a highly regulated environment

Jonathan Wasserman was the one standing in a federal court, but he represented more than just himself. For a few hours, he wasn’t a new law school graduate. He wasn’t a professional trying to bulk up on real-world experience. For a few hours, he stood for the United States government. “That’s incredibly heady for someone just out of law school,” Wasserman says, “and also very overwhelming.”

Wasserman’s first job as an attorney in the Department of Justice taught him a lesson that’s been key to his success, and his drive, ever since: how you regard your client is absolutely crucial to the work you do. He was passionate about defending the US government, and today, he’s just as passionate about his work at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). Wasserman is the vice president and associate general counsel overseeing litigation and government investigations for the global biopharmaceutical company. Though that title seems to indicate that his most important role is in a courtroom, that isn’t so. What’s always in the forefront of his mind is how to deliver the best returns to shareholders, keep Bristol compliant, and avoid the courtroom altogether. “You have to think about the long-term strategy of the company,” Wasserman says. “It’s not just about litigation—litigation is only one piece of a company. The difference as an in-house lawyer is that I’m part of the company’s strategy. [I’m a part of] developing and distributing products that improve the lives of many people.”

Litigation and compliance in the biopharmaceutical industry is so involved and difficult that there are robust debates about how much education a lawyer should require to work in it. Some say that defenders of such companies need only the standard law degree, and others argue they should pursue advanced degrees in the sciences to have a better understanding of the field. As such, avoiding product liability and personal injury lawsuits and ensuring compliance in a heavily regulated industry keeps Wasserman’s team busy, and the constant development of new therapies makes biopharmaceutical law an ever-evolving practice area. “You feel valued as a lawyer in a business like this,” Wasserman says. “Your role is absolutely necessary.”

Long before a case is brought to trial, Wasserman and the other 205 members of the legal team are proactive in identifying potential problems and working to avoid litigation. To that end, collaboration is necessary. The law department is divided into groups, and those groups work closely with others in the business to create strategies for risk mitigation. This is particularly important for the company’s intellectual property, what Wasserman calls the lifeblood of the industry. “Our success is tied to our collaboration,” Wasserman says.

Still, some cases need to be tried, and Wasserman and his team aren’t afraid to go to court when it’s in the best interest of the company. “There are certain cases where you feel so strongly, as a company, that you have to try them,” he says. “That helps send a message that the company is serious about protecting itself against lawsuits that we think lack merit.”

For example, Bristol-Myers Squibb went to trial in Broward County, Florida, in March 2013. It was a breach of contract case involving issues of patent litigation over Plavix, a blood thinner that prevents stroke, heart attack, and other heart problems and was, at one time, BMS’s biggest product. The manufacturer sought billions of dollars in damages, but Wasserman’s team chose not to settle the case. BMS wanted to take it to court to prove it could protect itself against baseless lawsuits. The six-person jury unanimously voted in Bristol-Myers Squibb’s favor, a major victory that ended a dispute that had dragged for several years. The case is currently being appealed.

There are so many angles to what a lawyer does in a company like BMS—compliance, regulations, ethics—that each case has to be considered carefully and individually, long before a trial is imminent. One way to do that is to keep informed of litigation undertaken by similar companies in the biopharmaceutical industry and how the issues these companies face can be avoided at Bristol. “It’s a way for us to understand what’s around the corner,” Wasserman says. “There are many firms in this industry that are covered by the media, and it’s important that we stay vigilant.”

With many challenges on the horizon, Wasserman’s leadership is paramount to keeping his team on track. He credits his knowledge in this area to his mentor at Schering-Plough, where he worked just before BMS. His mentor knew the value of giving praise and responsibility to those around him, which taught Wasserman that the best way to manage complex litigation is to rely on his team. So far, that mind-set has produced a team that deftly handles complex issues. “You can have all the wonderful ideas you want as a leader, but what’s most important is having people around you who can execute that strategy,” he says. He hires smart people who are skilled lawyers and stands back to let them do their jobs—micromanagement in such a complex field would be impossible, improbable, and unprofitable. When his team is given the responsibility and accountability to make decisions that benefit the company, they represent more than themselves; they stand in court as Bristol-Myers Squibb.