How Maria Pasquale Manages a Growing Legal Team

Maria Pasquale leads the legal department at Celgene Corporation to protect the intellectual property of its disease-altering medicines in more than fifty countries worldwide

Maria Pasquale started her career as a biochemist, researching cancer and genetic diseases for five years at the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Nassau, New York, and the Institute for Basic Research in New York.

But while she was working as a biochemist, she also was attending law school at night. Her background in biochemistry helped her take the fight against cancer and other diseases to the courts when she became a lawyer. For ten years, she specialized in biotechnical and pharmaceutical litigation at boutique law firm Pennie & Edmonds LLP in New York. “My focus and my passion has always been innovation in the biotechnology and healthcare space,” Pasquale says. “That has always been an area of acute interest to me. So when I was an outside counsel at an intellectual property (IP) firm, I had the opportunity to continue to work on cutting-edge research and be involved in protecting IP and the issues that came up with it.”

“We want people who are comfortable with an innovative culture and with asking the right questions of the business.”

In 2001, Pasquale joined Celgene Corporation in Summit, New Jersey, and became the company’s first in-house counsel. At the time, Celgene’s business was only in the United States. But as it developed new cancer-fighting drugs and treatments, it decided to go international. “Many companies of our size might have consented to partner with a large pharmaceutical company,” Pasquale says. “We decided, in spite of the risk involved, that we would do it ourselves and grow organically internationally. It was a great decision for Celgene and a great professional experience for me.”

That decision meant setting up affiliates that included medical directors, general managers, and commercial, medical, and sales personnel in countries outside the United States. “It affected our department because we needed to be on the ground to help set up each of the affiliates and to expand our legal footprint with the company,” Pasquale says. At the time of the expansion in 2006, the in-house legal department had grown from Pasquale to seven lawyers. It now numbers more than forty lawyers and more than forty paraprofessionals and other staff who are stationed around the world.

It’s Personal

Maria Pasquale is strongly motivated to help Celgene achieve its goal of developing important cancer medicines that help people with serious unmet needs. “It’s always been important to me to do that,” she says. “My own mother died of breast cancer at forty-four years of age. She was diagnosed when I was in college and died soon afterward. As a result, it’s been my life’s work, and it’s been a privilege to be part of a company like Celgene that develops drugs for serious unmet diseases.”

As Celgene’s senior VP, legal, and deputy general counsel, Pasquale’s responsibilities include overseeing critical litigation and regulatory matters, intellectual property, employment matters, and contracts including R&D agreements. The lawyers she hires specialize in many of these legal areas, and the department also works with outside law firms in some of the countries. “If we think we need a particular type of expertise, we will reach out to local counsel in the respective regions,” Pasquale explains. “We’re committed to helping Celgene achieve its mission, which is to develop innovative and life-changing medicines for our patients.”

Helping Celgene achieve its mission means that many of Celgene’s lawyers need familiarity with the pharmaceutical industry. “It’s very important for our lawyers to understand the business and the culture of our company,” Pasquale emphasizes. “There’s a lot of client interaction. It’s not just some e-mail that comes in. It’s a lot of working closely in collaboration with the business and knowing what their priorities are so that we understand what is happening in the company and how to best advise our clients.”

When hiring lawyers, Pasquale seeks out those with a high degree of intellectual curiosity. “We want people who are comfortable with an innovative culture and with asking the right questions of the business—people who are willing to expand their knowledge base to give quality legal advice,” she says. “Recruiting them has become a lot easier as our reputation has grown for being an excellent employer and a significant global player in the medical innovation space.”

To get the right talent in the legal department, Pasquale believes in promoting from within through formal and informal mentoring programs. “If we’ve invested in our lawyers, they’re showing quality work, they fit in well with our culture, and there’s an opportunity to advance them, we work hard to make that happen,” she says. “I have an open-door policy where people can ask me anything in terms of their professional development, and we try to determine what is best for them and the company.”

Her management philosophy is to make her employees feel empowered and supported. “I like to challenge people by allowing them to be as independent as possible and to take charge of matters,” Pasquale says. “There always has to be some oversight, but I really like folks to take on as much as they can and challenge themselves.”

Pasquale’s career path has always been toward biomedical innovation like that at Celgene, which is branching out into pharmaceuticals for inflammatory and immunological disorders such as psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis in addition to its oncological drugs. “Frankly, a company as dynamic as ours doesn’t lend itself to just sitting still,” Pasquale says. “A company that’s branching out into different regions of the world requires that you continue to grow to best serve the company.”

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