For many legal professionals, the law is a kind of family tradition. But Jim Stansel didn’t come from a family of lawyers, and he doesn’t point to fictional television lawyers as his early inspirations. Instead, he remembers hearing, at six years old, discussions and debates about the 1976 presidential election, Ford versus Carter.
“I grew up in Southern California, the least political place in the world and about as far from DC as you can get, but I remembered people talking about the issues, and that grabbed my attention,” Stansel says.
He developed a passion for discussing the biggest political and policy stories of his youth and followed it all the way to Yale Law School. The program was another early step in a career that combines policy-making with legal practice.
That intersection has continued to drive his career, from the classroom to the courts to his most recent position at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).
PhRMA is a DC-based trade association. Its mission is to advocate for public policies that foster effective, innovative medical research across the industry. As executive vice president and general counsel, Stansel builds the legal team and crafts its strategy.
It was just after Yale, clerking at the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, that he came upon a case that made him seriously consider pursuing healthcare law.
“It was a kickback statute case,” Stansel recalls. “It involved a hospital that was alleged to have paid bribes to doctors to refer patients. The seedy financial side—combined with the potential impact on patients—is really what piqued my interest.”
Starting his private-sector career at law firm Sidley Austin, he connected with other lawyers working on health law issues. The firm helped enable associates to develop their own career interests; Stansel’s perseverance eventually got him partnership at Sidley and then landed him a position with the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
After leaving HHS and spending seven more years at Sidley Austin where he cochaired its global life sciences team, Stansel arrived at PhRMA. He joined the organization in 2016 and quickly recognized the unique, mission-oriented culture at work.
“Law firms tend to be more siloed—at least, that’s my base of experience,”Stansel says. “PhRMA is completely the opposite; it has a collaborative and open feel to it. The mission focus—paving the way for medications to help patients—really permeates this place, and it’s an exciting thing to be a part of.”
He credits his time with HHS for teaching him how to navigate bureaucracy, manage in all directions, and build consensus. When he joined the department he was thirty-five years old, and the bureaucratic conditions of federal work surprised him.
“Learning to work with people, learning to have the meeting-before-the-meeting to actually drive consensus, understanding how the personalities and potential biases of people impact the way that they see an issue: all of those were things I had to learn when I got there,” Stansel says. “It was certainly a learning curve, but it was worth the investment.”
That has informed his approach at PhRMA, which is to position the legal team as a creative, collaborative partner to the business. At this organization, lawyers should be contributing ideas and proposing innovative solutions—not just standing by to respond to problems. This approach has garnered him recognition from outside firms with which Stansel works with.
“Jim is an effective team leader and talented at marshaling consensus on complex legal issues that intersect with science and policy,” says Krista Carver, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP. “As outside counsel to PhRMA, we admire Jim’s thoughtfulness, strategic vision, and collaborative spirit.”
Crafting that collaborative unit is a question of recruitment, retention, and culture. It’s been a time of growth at PhRMA, and Stansel has had the opportunity to build up the team from twelve to sixteen. The new hires are sourced from across trusted networks, selected to build up expertise across the organization’s many concerns.
“It’s a great opportunity to shed some things and create a new culture,” he says. “We really focus on being proactive: how can we make sure our colleagues across the building want to bring us in, and value us as partners? I think we’ve done that pretty successfully.”
As a leader, Stansel aims to teach individuals how to do things correctly, but let his people govern themselves. Everyone on this team is an expert in some area, so no one person can effectively dictate the specifics. Honest listening, mission-oriented conversations, and transparent decision-making are crucial, he says.
“We really focus on being proactive: how can we make sure our colleagues across the building want to bring us in, and value us as partners? I think we’ve done that pretty successfully.”
He describes this as a uniquely exciting time to work in the medical research industry. With sci-fi solutions emerging across the field, his team looks for ways to keep policy evolving. The future of treatment is more individualized than ever; this will bear out new types of expenditures, he says, for which public agencies will need to prepare.
For example, CAR-T therapy uses a patient’s own cells (modified by viruses, and replicated in a lab) to attack cancer in the body. Such individualized treatments are novel and promising, but require a vast amount of resources.
One policy response to this is a value-based arrangement for treatment. This is a commercial arrangement to price and bill drugs based on their performance, and one of the solutions Stansel is excited about. If a treatment works, insurers and patients pay the full value of it; but if it’s ineffective, or less effective than promised, the cost is reduced. The industry shoulders more risk in exchange for greater patient access.
“It’s a good way to align incentives correctly and get the right medicines to the right patients, but there are legal constraints that make it difficult to do,” Stansel says.
And that’s precisely the kind of opportunity PhRMA and the legal office are looking for, he adds.
“We’ve been focused on trying to break down those barriers. We’ve been able to bring consensus-driven solutions to the challenges that face our industry. As a legal department, we can make a difference.”