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Cortex - Life Sciences Insights

| 9 minutes read

Inspirational Women in Life Sciences: Rebecca Lacey and Sonya Roy

In the third edition of our Cortex series on Inspirational Women in Life Sciences, we are delighted to feature two incredible Australian women leading legal teams at two of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. 

Rebecca Lacey is Pfizer’s Legal Director for Australia and New Zealand and Developed Asia Cluster Legal Lead, managing a team of lawyers which handle a broad range of legal work across the business.  Rebecca has almost 20 years’ experience in the life sciences industry and enjoys seeing the work that the industry does positively affecting patients’ lives.

Sonya Roy is Head of Legal and Ethics (Australia) at Roche Products.  Sonya has 10 years’ experience working with businesses as in-house legal counsel in the pharmaceutical and FMCG industries.  Sonya leads a dedicated team of lawyers at Roche and is passionate about improving access to medicines.

In an interview with Alexandra de Zwart (Senior Associate), Rebecca and Sonya discussed their impressive careers, the challenges they’ve faced along the way, and their advice for the next generation of women looking to work in the life sciences industry.

DISCLAIMER: All participants are speaking in their personal capacity and not as clients of DLA Piper or as representatives of their company or organisation. 

Rebecca Lacey, Legal Director for Australia and New Zealand and Developed Asia Cluster Legal Lead, Pfizer 

Tell us about your journey into your current role – what challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?

Rebecca: Thinking back to my year 10 chemistry class helped me address this question.  Suffice to say, you can get involved, and make a real difference, in the life sciences industry without having a natural flair for science.  I have a true passion for life sciences and I have been able to contribute to the sector in the area of law. 

I have almost come full circle in my law career because I actually started at a research institute, where I was thrown into the deep end as a young lawyer. I applied for the job as a law graduate because I was excited about the chance to work on potential breakthroughs for the health sector. The role didn’t ask for candidates with a science background, and I was willing to give it a go and work hard to be good at my job.

Through that experience, I was given the opportunity to work with truly inspirational researchers working on new technologies like stem cell research. That's when I knew that working in-house, and in this industry, was for me. Fast forward a few decades and now I am in the role of Developed Asia Cluster Legal Lead at a major pharmaceutical company. 

I did try some other opportunities along the way, including working as in-house counsel for a major winery (which had its perks!), but I of course ended up in a similar place to where I started: back in the life sciences industry. 

However, it hasn’t always been an easy road.  There have been significant challenges and sacrifices along the way, including a two-year period when my husband and I were living in different cities (and dealing with weekly red-eye flights) so that we could both pursue our own career opportunities (for me, that was the incredible opportunity to work for Pfizer).  My husband and I made that decision based on our mutual respect for each other’s career aspirations and our willingness to make sacrifices to achieve our goals and follow our passions.

My key take-away from my journey so far is that if you find a role that aligns with your values, you will grow and succeed. I also think it is very beneficial to have a mentor to sponsor you and support you. Mentors are invaluable to help you problem solve throughout your career and to advocate for you in the workplace. I think the real key for me has been having mentors, including (but not always) senior women wanting to give back and take other women under their wing, who have sponsored me (including behind the scenes without my knowledge). I’m grateful to be at a point in my career where I can now do the same for up and coming women in our organisation. I think it is so important for women to support other women.

For more industry insights from DLA Piper’s Life Sciences team, click here to subscribe to Cortex; the sector’s dedicated blog.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

Rebecca: One of my favourite things about my job at Pfizer is that I get to be involved in an industry that makes such a positive impact and contribution to the community.  I also love the innovation that you get exposure to, and that you are encouraged to develop and participate in, when working in the life sciences sector.  In my role, I am presented with such variety and complexity of work; I like being able to turn up to work each day never knowing what new questions I will get to answer or which complicated problems I will help to solve.  This job isn’t for everyone, but it is perfect for me. 

I was reflecting recently on how, in 2019, I returned to Australia from a secondment in New York and not long after we found ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, which ended up defining my work life for the next three years – that’s something I could have never predicted but I really enjoy the challenges my job presents and being at the forefront of cutting edge science that can genuinely make a difference and help people around the world.

What advice would you give to women and girls thinking of pursuing a career in the life sciences sector?

Rebecca: I think the best advice I can give is to keep at it: if you have a goal, you can achieve it, but you may need to be creative on your path there (like I have been).  There are many ways you can get involved in this interesting and rewarding sector – you shouldn’t let a lack of knowledge or experience in a particular area stop you from doing what you want to do because you will always have something to contribute, and you can always learn (whether that’s through further study or on the job, like I did).  If you are passionate and hard-working, the rest will follow.

Sonya Roy, Head of Legal and Ethics (Australia), Roche Products

Tell us about your journey into your current role – what challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?

Sonya: I graduated with a double degree in law and business, majoring in accounting, which was strongly encouraged by my mother.  She was an accountant and I would often spend my spare time working and studying at her office (even though I hated accounting).  I took a graduate role at Deloitte within the international tax team, but it wasn’t long before I found myself yearning for a stronger purpose. 

I learnt in those early years that I loved understanding the ins and outs of a business and I liked to give advice.  For a time, I moved into private legal practice and worked across commercial, family and property law matters, but I had a natural strength for commercial law and I decided to apply for an in-house counsel role to strengthen my commercial focus and gain a deeper understanding of business (what better way to learn about business than to be inside a business?). 

This in-house role was amazing and challenging at the same time.  The business, which was a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) business, grew exponentially while I was working there.  I quickly found that the role of an in-house lawyer is very dynamic, and I learned early on the importance of processes, safeguarding the interests of the business, and how to give pragmatic advice quickly.  I ended up taking on the role of Company Secretary and General Counsel, and was the only female on a very vocal, fast-paced Executive Board consisting of several big personalities.  I built a robust network of external lawyers and appreciated the strong, cohesive relationship between both worlds of practice.

I met my husband during this time and it wasn’t till I was on my honeymoon that I realised that it was my first break in almost 5 years.  I had burnt myself to the ground because I never said “no” and constantly took on more and more as it was thrown at me.  At that time, I acknowledged that I needed to slow down and look after my own well-being. 

This was a turning point for me. I applied for a role at a pharmaceutical company whose primary disease focus was diabetes after reading about their company values, which really spoke to me (and seemed too good to be true). This role opened my eyes up to the life sciences sector, its intricacies, and the importance of, and hard work that goes into, ensuring access to medicines. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the complexities of the pharmaceutical product lifecycle, from R&D all the way through to treating patients.

When the opportunity arose at Roche, I couldn’t turn it down: it allowed me to immerse myself in an entirely new field (moving from a diabetes focus to an oncology focus), while drawing on my previous experience in the life sciences sector more generally.  I am always learning and that is really what drives me: my role is never stagnant, which is important to me.

Throughout my career there have been four major challenges I’ve needed to overcome. Having had so many varied roles, the biggest challenge has been navigating and adapting to new roles and environments. The second biggest challenge has been learning how to interact with different, and sometimes difficult, personalities, and also managing the different dynamics of now being in a leadership role. Thirdly, it took time for me to understand how to put my own well-being first and, particularly as a woman, learning when to say “no” and how to set the tone for the way people interact with you in a work setting. Finally, I am constantly striving to raise awareness of our profession and the integrity that our profession brings to an organisation, in contrast to the common perception business leaders can have of in-house counsel as being “red tape” or the ones who tell the business they can’t do what they want to do.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

Sonya: Changing lives.  This is easily my favourite part about my job – knowing the impact we are making to provide access to life-saving medicines.  There is an incredible sense of satisfaction in knowing that I have been a part of changing someone’s life for the better.  

Professionally, I also like that any day could be different: there are a new set of challenges every day and new areas of life science that we are exploring – that is the fun part of my work. Working in life sciences affords you the opportunity to work on complex and challenging questions, and to constantly learn new things.

What advice would you give to women and girls thinking of pursuing a career in the life sciences sector?

Sonya: Don’t limit yourself: follow your passion and you will excel.  It is never too late to change paths or to enhance your skills if you find yourself unhappy and wanting more.  I chose life sciences because I wanted to have a positive impact on access to health.  However, when I started out, I never imagined myself in a leadership role, but all my past experience (good and bad) led me to the role I am in today.  Despite the early burn out, changes in career field, and the difficulties of navigating dynamic leaders, I continued to challenge myself and follow my passion.

It's also important to form strong networks: the life sciences industry is actually smaller than you might realise at times and this can be helpful. On your career journey, you will meet people along the way and it's really important to take advantage of networking opportunities as and when they arise, whether that’s internally or externally. You will always have new colleagues that come along. As part of building a strong network, I believe that mentoring others and sharing your experiences with the next generation of leaders is crucial. I have had many mentors over the course of my career and those relationships have been very valuable. I try to seek out mentors with varied life experience, including those who have gone through some of the same challenges as me (which is one reason why female mentors are important). My mentors have pushed me to take on exciting opportunities (such as overseas secondments) and have championed me and my goals, including helping me get a seat at the management table. A  s a woman in life sciences, I always try to advocate for, and mentor other women. I am extremely fortunate to have talented, strong and empowered women in my team, including those I have mentored since the beginning of their career and have brought with me to Roche.

For more industry insights from DLA Piper’s Life Sciences team, click here to subscribe to the sector’s dedicated blog, Cortex.


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