Elizabeth Feeney on GSK’s Legal Puzzle Piece

Assistant General Counsel Elizabeth Feeney ensures the legal department fits into the bigger picture of GlaxoSmithKline’s greater culture and mission

Photo by Rebecca Henasey

Elizabeth Feeney’s desire to create enduring connections with her clients is not only what initially encouraged her to find an in-house legal role but is also what brought her to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) more than seventeen years ago.

“In private practice, I often felt like just as I’d get to know people, or really understand their business model, the particular matter would end, and all the knowledge I’d gained really wasn’t useful anymore,” she says. “Now, I have the opportunity to keep building on the working relationships I have rather than immediately moving on to the next thing when a piece of litigation ends.”

In fact, Feeney believes that her work as an assistant general counsel in GSK’s dispute resolution and prevention group has been successful largely due to the trusting relationships she has established within the workplace.

“I hope to build rapport with people so that the next time something comes up or they have a question, they feel really comfortable picking up the phone and calling me. This is one of the parts of the job that I really enjoy: doing that sort of proactive counseling work within the business and not just being reactive when a subpoena or a lawsuit comes in,” Feeney explains.

Feeney believes that working from a place of understanding—both about the business and what employees are hoping to achieve—is one of the most important aspects of working as an in-house lawyer. “To quote a colleague, we [legal] do not want to be known as the ‘department of no.’ While certainly there are times when you have to explain why a particular approach is inadvisable, wherever you can, you want to be able to talk about alternatives or make suggestions rather than just throw up obstacles,” she says.

elizabeth feeney
Elizabeth Feeney, GlaxoSmithKlinePhoto by Rebecca Henasey

As such, Feeney is focused on approaching legal matters with an attitude that seeks to understand, build trust, and offer practical, pragmatic solutions. “Ultimately, GSK’s goal is to help patients. And fortunately, the businesspeople here recognize that legal shares that same goal, and they want legal at the table to help make decisions. To be told you’re a ‘value add’ to discussions—that’s really the best compliment you can get from your colleagues.”

Colleagues like David Coulson of global law firm Greenberg Traurig, whom Feeney supervised for a decade in high-stakes litigation, attest to her people-focused, well-rounded leadership style. “Elizabeth is a creative problem-solver and exceptional leader,” says Coulson “She has the uncanny ability to see the big picture and pragmatically assess risks within the context of GSK’s business objectives.”

Currently, much of Feeney’s focus is on cybersecurity, particularly helping GSK minimize the potential litigation risks that can arise as companies embrace new technology. In addition to leveraging the strong relationships she has developed during her tenure at GSK, Feeney believes that success in her role comes from vigilant observation of how other companies manage cybersecurity breaches.

“We do a lot to monitor what is going on with other litigation cases that arise from data breaches. Sometimes, companies are sued or faulted for the quality or substance of their responses, and we try to learn from those instances so that if we are ever in a similar situation ourselves, we aren’t caught up short,” she explains. “You constantly have to be thinking through different scenarios and have a plan in place to properly respond to however these scenarios unfold.”

Having a solid plan in an emerging, ever-evolving area like cybersecurity comes with some difficulty, however. “Technology moves so quickly, and you really have to work to stay on top of the trends. You can’t ever be complacent,” Feeney says, “but you have to be willing to acknowledge that there is going to be some degree of uncertainty, no matter how prepared you think you are. It’s really important that you’re able to work in that ambiguous space and be levelheaded about it. It’s a terrific challenge, but that’s something I really like about it—you’re not working in a very settled area of the law, so there’s a lot of room for fresh, innovative thinking.”

Mixing up the kind of work she does is a key to Feeney’s longevity in GSK’s legal department.  “The job is constantly evolving,” she says. During her tenure, Feeney has handled mass torts, FCPA investigations, and securities litigation; supported major divestitures and acquisitions; and trained hundreds of GSK employees (including the former CEO) on the principles of clear, concise, accurate business writing.

“You constantly have to be thinking through different scenarios and have a plan in place to properly respond to however these scenarios unfold.”

Currently, Feeney also sits on GSK’s Disclosure Committee, which, among other things, is responsible for GSK’s annual report and securities filings. Serving on the Disclosure Committee has been another integral means for Feeney to broaden her knowledge of the company as a whole and to establish ties with colleagues in other corporate functions, as well as another opportunity to wrestle with some thorny legal issues. “I think it’s probably obvious that I relish a challenge,” Feeney says, laughing.

In that spirit, Feeney just recently wrapped a successful term as cochair of GSK legal’s Global Inclusion & Diversity initiative. To her, diversity and inclusion is “having a workforce that really reflects back the communities in which we work. That means seeing historically underrepresented groups represented here, and not just in the workforce but also in senior and leadership positions.”

“One of the things that we did that was pretty innovative was a reverse diverse mentoring project, where members of the legal leadership team each took on a junior mentor who was diverse to them in some way—either in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, generation, geography, and so on. People found it really eye-opening and valuable on both sides of the mentor/mentee equation—it allowed people to gain a perspective that they wouldn’t ordinarily have on how the workplace feels to someone differently situated than themselves.”

elizabeth feeney
Photo by Rebecca Henasey

Naturally, Feeney’s dedication to promoting underrepresented groups inspires her mentees to carry on the mission and excel in their own careers.

“Elizabeth proves that she can achieve great success in her career while also helping others to advance and succeed,” says Jennifer Ilkka, partner at Faegre Drinker. “As a young female partner navigating the challenges of business development in ‘Big Law,’ I was the fortunate beneficiary of the support and commitment Elizabeth generously shares with those lawyers that have captured her trust through demonstrated competence and reliability, regardless of their age, gender, race, or other diverse characteristics that all too often can impede advancement in the legal profession. Her dedication, in particular to the promotion of women to lead attorney or first-chair trial roles, is proof positive that GSK’s devotion to diversity and inclusion is not just public relations, but actual practice.”

Feeney believes that diversity is key to any successful organization, especially a legal department, where the ability to view an issue from all sides is invaluable. “If everyone is coming at a problem from the exact same approach, it makes it difficult to pressure test your ideas and come up with a comprehensive solution,” Feeney maintains.

Feeney is clear that diversity itself isn’t enough without encouraging a culture of inclusion—something that fits neatly with her history of building strong working relationships. “There’s a quote from Vernā Myers that states, ‘Diversity is being asked to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance,’ and I think that is absolutely right. It’s not just having people who look or sound different show up in the office; it’s actually making sure that they all truly feel part of the team.”