Acorda General Counsel Jane Wasman shares her formula for the perfect legal department.
By Heather Weaver
Throughout her career, Jane Wasman, President of International and General Counsel for Acorda, has been drawn to positions that offer room for personal and professional development. From her initial work in litigation to her time working in legislation on Capitol Hill, Wasman has worked her way through an array of intellectual challenges.
In her role with Acorda, she combines that desire for betterment with one to do work she is passionate about. Leading the Legal Department and balancing a variety of strategic roles is no easy task, but Wasman makes it work day in and day out.
The Great Transition
Wasman started her legal career working on challenging and significant cases with pharmaceutical company, Schering-Plough. She then moved on to tackling legislation projects on Capitol Hill.
Over time, Wasman realized the allure of working in house. “What attracted me to it was the difference between being a consultant and being part of a company. You get to be more involved, and you get to be part of the business.”
That sense of involvement leads Wasman to view her legal team not as a separate entity but as a necessary part of the business, bringing specialized expertise to the table. Supporting a company internally allows a legal team to strategically address issues in context, she asserts, as opposed to outside counsel, which may not be privy to all of the factors involved.
“I think you have to make the decision to be open to taking a pragmatic approach,” Wasman said, “identifying solutions which allow the business to operate efficiently while still complying with the law.”
A New Landscape
Wasman’s time on Capitol Hill allowed her to contribute to public service and Schering-Plough offered her opportunities to work abroad, but her position at Acorda provides her with the chance to do work close to her heart.
With Acorda, Wasman is helping build a company devoted to bringing innovative medicines to market for people suffering from serious neurological conditions. “Working at Acorda brings a unique factor to the table because we are a smaller company and, by nature of the diseases that we’re trying to tackle, we’re much closer to it. When you make a difference in people’s lives, you can really feel it.”
Wasman remembers first encountering Acorda when the company was on the verge of a major success. The group was finishing tests on a drug with great potential, but just as Wasman was considering joining the team, the outcome of the tests fell short of expectations.
Wasman opted to join Acorda anyway. At the bottom of it all “was the quality of the people, the great enthusiasm and dedication that they had, and their passion for the mission of the company which I was very excited to be part of.”
A Growing Group
Upon her arrival at Acorda, Wasman was the company’s only lawyer. Another lawyer would join her team, but the department remained very small until the past couple of years.
Wasman enjoyed her time spent working as part of a Legal Department duo. “We weren’t really specializing or pulling ourselves off in little siloed areas. We were involved with just about everything, which was really a lot of fun.”
Over time the company continued to expand in both size and scope, warranting Legal Department expansion. The process was a gradual one, allowing Wasman to seek out lawyers with the “right skill sets and personality fit.”
As a hiring manager, she seeks lawyers with expertise in the “areas of the business with increased legal needs,” adding that “a threshold requirement is that they be a good cultural fit.”
“Someone dedicated to the mission of the company, and who’s going to partner with the business,” Wasman said of her ideal staff addition. “Someone who will collaborate and find ways to achieve business objectives while helping ensure compliance. I look for people who fit into the company culture as a whole.”
Work Together, Succeed Together
Acorda’s Legal Department is a collaborative, supportive environment where members can rely on one another, and it begins with the hiring process. Wasman acknowledges that while she might not always get the process 100 percent right, finding strong mutual matches is something she strives for during interviews.
It is Wasman’s philosophy to build and maintain a cooperative team, and she makes that crystal clear to her employees. Fostering this environment requires the legal leader to ensure there is open communication with and within the department.
“I have regular meetings with all the lawyers to brainstorm issues and to share experiences,” Wasman said. “The meetings have become a forum for people to not share achievements but rather to talk about issues and challenges and seek advice from the rest of the team.”
Equally important to Wasman is how the legal team works with Acorda’s other departments. She promotes positive companywide interactions by assigning lawyers to specific business units, providing a structured client-attorney relationship. These units have proven to be successful, allowing lawyers to form solid relationships within the company and really understand the ins and outs of Acorda and its work.
“If you don’t understand your business, you can’t be a good lawyer,” Wasman remarked. “This is one way to make sure that we really do understand the business.”
Naturally, the legal team experiences tough times too. “One of the things that’s always a challenge is identifying when to rule out certain initiatives completely and which ones can be refined in a way that is lawful and achieves the intended business objective,” Wasman said. “You need to develop a confidence in your judgment so that you don’t say no just because it seems the easiest answer.”
Challenges aside, these cooperative pursuits have helped Wasman to build a Legal Department she can rely on for both the short- and long-term. Initially she often called on outside counsel for expertise and additional pairs of hands. With today’s growing team, most of the work is done in house.
“We’ve substantially winnowed down the use of outside counsel to specific consultations for additional technical expertise or for large one-off matters like litigation or a large business development deal,” Wasman said.
A Diversifying Portfolio
Wasman started at Acorda as General Counsel, but over time her responsibilities have grown. The Quality Unit and project management both fell under her jurisdiction. She then became Chief of Strategic Development, and later President of International, allowing her to take on more strategic roles.
These roles place a great deal of responsibility on Wasman, and she noted the challenge of often having “no consistency in what I’m doing at any one time. It ranges from working on short-term ‘issue of the day’ matters to long-term planning.”
When asked about balancing the responsibilities, Wasman laughingly said, “It doesn’t always happen, and it certainly doesn’t happen easily. Part of it is working hard, and part of it is being efficient about it.”
Wasman relies on both her sense of prioritization and her team to complete the work at hand. “It’s easy for it to get crowded out by the fire drills of the day, but what’s important in a strategic role is making sure you don’t lose sight of what your big-picture issue is.”
Wasman has accumulated diverse experience throughout her career, developing her ability to dispense career advice. First, she advises that there is no one correct path to a successful career. “I’m a big believer in getting diversity in exposure and experience, whatever field you’re in. I think that helps you develop a broader experience and understand the context of what you’re working on.” Throughout her career, Wasman has not hesitated to try new things, and she believes most others would benefit from a similar approach to professional development.
Secondly, Wasman finds building trust to be key. Most people find themselves on a team at some point during their career. It is important, she said, to “learn to build trust and be a team player. If you don’t have trust, you aren’t going to have relationships with people in the business.”
This trust ties neatly into her third piece of advice: to really learn the company’s business. “I don’t think you can really be good at any aspect of what you’re doing, regardless of your technical expertise, if you don’t understand what you’re trying to do.”
Throughout her career, Wasman has made every effort to follow her own advice, breeding a sense of ongoing curiosity. “Hopefully I’ve been practicing some of what I’ve been preaching in terms of getting a broader business experience and context,” she said, “so that I’ve been able to have expertise in my area as well as a better understanding of the broader business issues.”
Heather Weaver is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, California.