From Pharmacy Fascination to Legal Leader

Charles Dadswell reflects on his career and where science and law intersect

Spending time in the neighborhood pharmacy as a kid helped foster Charles Dadswell’s love of chemistry, physics, and electronics. This enthusiasm led Dadswell to attend pharmacy school before working in the neonatal and pediatric intensive care unit at a hospital following graduation.

Dadswell was always interested in the law and continued working part-time as a pharmacist at Rite Aid after being accepted into law school. After graduating, Dadswell continued his legal education, receiving a master’s degree in patent law and trade regulation and working for a federal appellate judge in Washington. He gained experience as a patent attorney and subsequently as general counsel working for several big-name companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Glaxo, and the French diagnostic company bioMerieux. He started as general counsel with Illumina in 2013.

What’s your leadership philosophy?

Dadswell: That people are well intentioned, hardworking, and should be trusted. It’s then a leader’s responsibility to match an individual’s level of experience, areas of interest, and the needs of the organization.

After that, it’s been my experience that the best way to lead your department is to develop your employees. Provide individuals the opportunity to make decisions and help them to understand what they might miss if they don’t know a specific business or legal area and encourage the use of subject matter experts to help make matrixed decisions—for younger attorneys this is sometimes a tough bridge to cross.

What early leadership roles did you have and what lessons did you learn?

Dadswell: As an Eagle Scout, I learned early leadership as a patrol leader and troop leader. Quickly, I realized that people need to feel that their contributions are valued, and that having a team of diverse individuals is extremely beneficial, both to the success of an endeavor and to the overall satisfaction of the team members.

In business, a successful team needs to have people who think differently and tackle problems in a myriad of ways. When this happens, issues are examined from multiple perspectives and different angles; this input from a variety of perspectives and experiences leaves teams less likely to be surprised or to have missed an angle, because they are all using their diverse knowledge and experiences.

How do you handle the scope of the role of general counsel?

Dadswell: First, you need to have a great team. I am privileged to have a tremendous team of talented individuals who work well together and who are always looking out for the best interest of the company; they excel at seeking out other views and subject matter experts across the organization. Next you need to have a true global presence and to function as a cohesive team. Finally, you need to give the individuals leading your organization the freedom to manage their teams and provide the support for them to take on opportunities that will move the business forward.

How can legal and government affairs “move the business”?

Dadswell: We believe genetic sequencing is the foundation and future for diagnostic testing and treatment, which will, over time, significantly reduce the cost of healthcare. As a growing company, our government affairs team is assisting us in interacting with government officials and is able to educate and explain our technology. On the legal side, it is our responsibility to protect and enforce our legal rights, and the decisions we make have a direct impact on our business. The other role we play is to advise and assist in business decisions while balancing risk. However, we have to be careful to balance risk while still allowing the business to grow at the quickest pace possible.

How have you handled the ethical questions related to genetic sequencing?

Dadswell: Illumina has always had an Ethics Advisory Board to handle practical questions that come from our lab directors. We have just reformed the board with some of the top genetic ethicists from around the world. Our goal is to understand the ethical questions that arise from our technological advancements. This talented and experienced group of individuals will be discussing current and potential future ethical questions and providing us a vision into the future as genetic testing advances.

Could you give us an insight into what you see as possibly having an ethical impact?

Dadswell: Interestingly, our noninvasive prenatal screening test for genetic disease has produced outcomes that didn’t square with our typical results. When this was investigated further, cancer was found in the mother; this was an ancillary finding and the debate over the ethical treatment of ancillary findings is robust and ongoing. Other ethical issues we are looking at include gene-editing technology, and the ability to isolate and sequence whole embryonic cells circulating in a
pregnant mother’s blood.

What advice would you give to attorneys looking to become general counsel?

Dadswell: Be an expert in something—whether that’s regulatory, mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property, or litigation—but be interested in everything. Listen to everyone, absorb different and opposing views, and never stop learning. Interface and check in frequently with your stakeholders, and never forget that you are in the service business. Businesses run on the basis of good advice and efficiency, so be an effective communicator and an impartial voice in the organization.

What drives you as an individual?

Dadswell: Success. I hate to lose; call it the litigator in me. Illumina’s scientists, engineers, and programmers give us our competitive advantage, and we will continue to innovate, grow, and create markets with our technology. This advantage is tremendous when measuring success. However, I also measure success on an individual level: is every single person that works for the legal and government affairs function successful, and what can we do to assure they are totally engaged?

What do you look for when hiring?

Dadswell: We hire experienced professionals and competence is typically not an issue. Then questions of fit, style, and manner become the most important areas I consider. With experienced professionals coming from different companies, they carry with them the experiences and feel of that past organization. I ask questions about what they liked and disliked in their past position, which says a lot. I also want to see how they treat other employees, particularly employees of the level they manage. Everyone should be treated with respect.

Illumina is a quickly growing company. How have you kept the legal and government affairs teams ahead of the growth?

Dadswell: When I started at Illumina in 2013, the company had 3,200 employees. We now have over 6,000 globally, including 3,400 at our San Diego headquarters. We have three primary sites: San Diego, Singapore, and Cambridge, United Kingdom. To keep the legal and government affairs groups ahead of the curve, there are three things I’ve focused on: organic growth in line with the company’s growth, creating new organizations within the department such as a regulatory and quality group and government affairs, and having strong relationships with several highly respected external law firms. We also recently expanded our legal teams in Asia and Europe to place resources closer to where our international clients are housed. This takes some of the burden off our San Diego team and further aligns our international locations. As I think about the legal department, the next expansion of the group will likely be adding to our commercial and compliance team.

You’re a proponent of innovation. What drives that thinking?

Dadswell: As a lifelong nerd with a penchant for science, engineering, and technology, I believe anything is possible. Turn a curious nerd into a patent attorney, and the possibilities look truly endless. Seeing the positive impact we can make on people’s lives using sequencing motivates me, and Illumina as a whole, to continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible with our technology. It’s no coincidence that I was drawn to a company where one of the core tenets is, “Innovation is in our DNA.”


Fish congratulates Charles Dadswell on this well-deserved recognition of his visionary leadership, sharp legal mind, and business acumen. We have been fortunate to see him apply this expertise to achieve remarkable results for Illumina during the multiple matters that we’ve had the privilege of handling for Illumina.