Elisabeth Leimbacher, LL.M. im Porträt (engl.)
"Think of what your families bring to your professional skills and leverage these skills in the workplace."
Elisabeth Leimbacher, LL.M., Head Legal Rare Diseases Region Europe-Canada at Takeda, on the switch from law firm to in-house counsel and learning new skills through professional and personal changes.
You studied political sciences and law in Paris and then pursued a LL.M. in the USA on a scholarship, to then land an associate position in Switzerland. You are now qualified as a lawyer in Zürich, New York and Paris. What impact did your training in these different jurisdictions have on your work?
I believe that having practiced in different countries helps being intellectually open and curious and makes you a better lawyer. When working as legal adviser in an international environment, whether in an international law firm or a company, you need to understand the legal framework of the different jurisdictions where your clients or your company operate. In my current role as Head Counsel of Rare Diseases for the region Europe and Canada, being adaptable is key since different legal frameworks are at play. Moreover, my international background helps me adapting to different cultural environments and better understand colleagues and clients from different countries.
You and your partner moved to Singapore when you just had your first child. How did you tackle this challenge?
Ten years ago, as I was finishing my LL.M. in the United States, and about to start working in Geneva, my partner forewent a Fulbright scholarship to Columbia University, so we could stay together in Switzerland. We were confident that another opportunity to live abroad would once again come up. When he was accepted at the MBA program at the INSEAD campus in Singapore, it was a no brainer to embark on this adventure together with our 1-year old daughter at the time. I like this statement from "The Little Prince": "Let the dream eat up your life so that life does not eat up your dream"*. Having a family should not prevent you from pursuing your dreams, on the contrary children are a boost to new adventures!
You had your first two children while still working in a top-tier law firm, and your third child while working in-house. On the concept of “dual-career couple”, how did you and your partner organize yourselves so that both of you could pursue your careers while at the same time starting a family?
We were lucky to have the support of our families and are both very good with sleep deprivation! Jokes aside, I don’t have the secret answer to balancing career and family. In my case, communicating openly with my partner about our personal and professional priorities and support each other in achieving one another’s goals is helpful. Having a good coffee machine at home also helps!
On another note, over recent years the discussion has focused a lot on women and brought a lot of progress. Now, the focus should shift to men and how they too can achieve the same work life balance as women through telework, parental leave etc. while still feeling comfortable seizing these opportunities. I truly believe that the real quest is how to make your family and career a constant source of joy, regardless of whether you are male or female.
Any advice on how to prepare for going back to work after maternity leave?
Aside from the financial compensation, one would hope that a woman goes back to work from maternity leave because she enjoys her work. If she does not get exciting projects, her motivation will quickly drop. A good manager would acknowledge this drive and commitment by putting her in the lead for interesting projects and discussing career development when she is back. For instance, there is nothing more motivating than getting promoted when you come back from maternity leave. This is a strong sign and I have seen it done a couple of times.
You tried different work percentages during your career: first 60%, then 80% and now again 100% with three children. What was the reason for you to increase your work hours again?
Here again, I do not think that there is a one size fits all answer. Each person should determine for themselves for what works best for them. Even once you think you have found the answer, it may not be set in stone and the solution may evolve over time depending on your personal situation.
This was the case for me: I worked at a rate of 60% for a couple of months after my maternity leave to ensure a smooth transition back to work and progressively increased my work rate. Currently, even with three children at home, I feel that working full time gives me the space and time needed to adequately follow-up on a number of different projects, without being limited by a number of days per week.
In any event, in my view, what is important than the question of work rate, is to have a level of flexibility in your work schedule to, for instance, be able to pick up your child earlier form day-care if needed and use time outside regular office hours to get your work done.
In 2017 you took up an in-house counsel position and are now working as the Head Legal for the Rare Diseases group at Takeda for the Region Europe and Canada. What was the reason for you to move in-house?
I was approached by a head hunter to take on a position at Shire (now Takeda), a leading company in rare diseases headquartered in Switzerland. They were looking for someone with an international background and solution-oriented attitude. I was attracted by the international environment, diversity of backgrounds and the possibility of Interacting with various stakeholders. The key driver for me was the company’s core business:helping patients with severe conditions, thus giving an additional purpose to my work.
Another important factor was the high number of women I could see in senior management positions. I am glad this is also the case in my new company. At Takeda we have six women in the executive committee, as well as a perfect gender parity in the EUCAN Legal Leadership Team.
What was the most surprising feature of being an in-house counsel for you?
The environment is quite fast paced. On a typical work day, it is like being on the trading floor: you have back-to back meetings, calls and follow-ups on a broad range of projects – there is never a dull moment!
It is also a fast-evolving environment because the pharma activity is closely linked to innovation. This means that there is a lot of business development and M&A activity, R&D for new therapies. One must be comfortable with change but in my view it is also a very exciting environment!
An in-house counsel requires a more diverse skillset. What were new skills that you had to learn?
I had to quickly learn about the pharmaceutical industry and the specific issues relating to rare diseases. I have also built upon my skills as an effective business partner with various internal business stakeholders. It is important to develop a business acumen and I have been called to go beyond my legal “comfort zone” and develop new areas of expertise. I personally benefited from an internal talent leadership program within my company, allowing me to develop additional skills for my role, and this has been a very helpful in my work.
From your time as an attorney, you know the way law firms usually operate. How does this impact your perspective as the client of these law firms now?
As a client, I expect law firms to combine excellent legal skills with a pragmatic and solution-oriented approach. I see added value in legal advice where there is a clear recommendation on the way forward. Of course, the reality is often more complex and there might not be a clear-cut answer. Nonetheless, providing a clear recommendation based on experiences with other clients while highlighting associated risks (if any) is what good lawyering should be and this is what I look for when seeking advice from external counsel.
If someone wanted to become an in-house counsel, would you recommend to first gather some experience in a law firm?
Absolutely. Working within a law firm gave me a well-rounded training whether in regards to professionalism, high standards of services, and diversity of clients – all in a fast-paced environment. I think there should be better segue between the world of lawfirms and In-house counsel through mentoring or secondment programs. I know there are great programs out there for the in-house community (such as https://mosaicforlawyers.com/) or lawyers, but I am not aware of a formalized program mingling both professions - there might be a good opportunity for professional associations right there!
Do you think that having children helped you developed other new skills?
This is a great question. Too often, women think that having a family is a liability to their professional progression. If you see things from another angle, you realize that by raising children you develop skills that can also help you in your professional life. Whether it’s people’s management and development, setting priorities, resilience, empathy, creativity, efficiency, communication, adaptability and the list goes on. I think women should start thinking of what their families bring to their professional skills and show the value these skills can have in the workplace.
Which female lawyer would you nominate as a role model for breaking.through and for which reasons?
I was fortunate to cross the path of many outstanding female professionals during my career. If I had to choose one, it would be Gabrielle Kaufmann-Kohler with whom I started my career. She is a role model of integrity, efficiency and clarity which are important values to me.
Thank you very much for the interesting interview!
Basel/Zürich, September 2019. Elisabeth Leimbacher answered the interview in writing. The questions were drafted by Charlotte Rosenkranz.
*The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
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