Lisa LeCointe-Cephas, Head of Global Investigations and Executive Director for Merck & Co., manages a team of lawyers around the world who are responsible for conducting internal investigations related to Merck’s policies, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and international anti-bribery and anti-corruption laws. She previously served as lead Government Investigations counsel for Bristol-Myers Squibb and prior to that, she was a partner in the Government Investigations and white-collar defense practice of Kirkland & Ellis. Lisa is lauded as an analytical and detail-focused advocate, investigator and advisor with experience litigating, conducting investigations, negotiating with government officials, and providing legal and compliance advice. Lisa speaks with Benchmark research analyst Shailyn Tirado about her leap from private practice to in-house, the disparity between genders across the legal profession, and some words-of-wisdom for future generations of lawyers.
Tell me a bit about your history as legal counsel and your role as Head of Global Investigations for Merck & Co.
I have over 10 years’ experience in litigation and investigations. I am currently the Head of the Global Investigations organization for Merck & Co. (“Merck”), which operates as MSD outside the USA and Canada. As the Head of Global Investigations, I manage a team of lawyers around the world who are responsible for conducting internal investigations related to breaches of Merck’s policies, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, international anti-bribery and anti-corruption laws and the False Claims Act. We are also responsible for managing the company’s response to government and regulatory proceedings around the world.
I joined Merck in February 2018 from Bristol-Myers Squibb Corp. (“BMS”), where I served as the primary Government Investigations counsel for the company. In that role, I was the attorney with lead responsibility for managing the company’s DOJ, SEC, FINRA, FDA and other federal, state and foreign governmental enforcement agency investigations.
Prior to BMS, I was a partner in the Government Investigations and White-Collar Defense practice of Kirkland & Ellis LLP in New York, NY. My private practice was varied, but I spent the bulk of my Kirkland career defending financial institutions and multi-national pharmaceutical, healthcare, transportation, technology, energy, and other companies in connection with DOJ, SEC, and other federal, state and foreign governmental enforcement agency investigations involving alleged violations of securities laws, import/export laws, the FCPA, the Anti-Kickback Statute, the False Claims Act, allegations of off-label promotion, improper sales and marketing practices, pricing issues, and other regulatory issues. I also served as the head of the firm’s Women Leadership Initiative for a number of years and was an active member of the Recruiting Committee.
Have the new administration's regulatory policies had any effect on your day-to-day?
The short answer is no. Whenever a new administration takes over, every lawyer in this space tries to predict how the enforcement landscape may change as a result of new policies or priorities. But, while we have seen new or revised guidance on how to develop a strong compliance program or what is required for companies in terms of cooperation credit, that does not really impact the day to day of this job. Regardless of the administration, my remit remains constant: it is my job to identify and remediate risk for the organization I work for to help them to continue to operate with the highest levels of integrity. I am proud to work for a company that values integrity and makes ethics the cornerstone of everything that we do.
What unique talents do you think you bring to this role, and are there specific factors that you attribute to your success?
One of the keys to being effective in this role, is being a good communicator. Not just in how you speak
or present, but more critically, the greatest asset I have is being a strong listener. As an investigator and partner to the business, I have to understand what motivates our employees, what are the business needs, and what will be the effective deterrents for undesirable behavior. I also generally follow an investigative variant on the “golden rule”: Speak to others as they would have you speak to them. When speaking to employees in high risk situations, it is immensely important to understand how people will best receive the information you need to deliver.
That said, I think my strongest talent is simply being a people person and someone who feels comfortable across cultures in a multitude of different environments. My role is Global and in order to operate around the world, I need to be able to work with and communicate with people from diverse backgrounds and cultural experiences with inclusivity and open-mindedness. As a black woman in America who grew up in a majority white town, went to two ivy league schools and climbed the corporate ladder (even when the rungs were slippery, cracked or removed altogether), I have had to learn to move in spaces in which I am inherently “other”. These challenges have truly been a gift to me in my career, as I have learned the invaluable lesson of how to work cross-culturally and I never fear being the only “one” (woman, minority, or even lawyer) in the room.
You made the move in-house after years in the private sector, what is the biggest difference that you have seen from the public sector, and have your views and opinions changed in the subsequent years?
My time in the private sector was productive and rewarding. Kirkland provided me with great training and substantial responsibility very early on in my career. I took depositions and got up on my feet within the first few years of yeras of practice. I’m honestly thankful that I learned a lot of great skills and acquired the competencies that have allowed me to succeed substantively in-house.
I made the decision to go in-house based on a desire to be a closer partner to the business. Specifically, I wanted to get more involved in proactive risk management and help companies identify matters before they escalated. Both of my in-house roles have really lived up to my expectations in that regard. While I have been leading defensive investigative efforts for both companies, I have been really fortunate to work for 2 companies that have really given me a seat at the table and allowed me to really grow as a well-rounded advisor and strategist.
Is there anything that you accomplished that required you to leave your comfort zone and develop proficiency in something entirely new and different?
I jumped out of my comfort zone when I left the firm. While I was excited about expanding my skillset, it was hard to leave the place that had trained me to practice law. But, that proved to be one of the best decisions I made. I took on substantial responsibility when I joined BMS, and I quickly felt like an integral and valued member of the team. That is why it was equally challenging to make the move from BMS to Merck. It is always uncomfortable and hard to leave a job you love. In both instances, I questioned my decision. Why would I leave a position where I am successful, and I know what to expect from my day to day? But, for me, the move to Merck has been even more rewarding than my first jump in-house. Specifically, I went from a sole contributor to working with and heading up a full matrix organization. This has allowed me to return to one of my greatest passions: identifying and developing talent.
Tell me about a time when you and your team raised the bar and exceeded expectations.
This will sound cliché, but we do this on a daily basis. My team handles a diverse docket of cases on a wide array of sensitive and/or confidential issues. They work across time-zones and language barriers, and they produce fantastic results. I’m really proud to work with such a talented group of individuals.
Have you found the legal industry has address the disparity in expectations between genders?
I do not feel that the disparity has been addressed in law firms. In-house feels slightly different. At the companies that I have worked for, I have genuinely felt valued for what I bring to the table and not pre-judged based on my gender, or the color of my skin. In fact, I have had the pleasure (and unfortunately unique experience) of working for two amazing female general counsels!
Unfortunately, what I see among my law firm colleagues looks very different. Granted, I don’t think we are facing the same issues that women had to deal with a few decades ago. Although, I certainly have had my share of experiences where I have been asked to make coffee or people assume I’m a secretary. That said, for the most part, the issues are different. Women are described as not confident or too confident. I have sat through executive coaching sessions where people talk about lowering the pitch of female voices. Having children and work-life balance continue to be seen as women issues instead of people or parent issues. Women are expected to fit into gender-normative expectations; but not be too feminine.
Sadly, we see this disparate treatment play out in the startlingly high rates of attrition we still see for women and minorities in law firms. Unfortunately, the culture of law firms and the disparate expectations for women and people of color create barriers to success.
What is one piece of advice you would offer young lawyers, specifically women lawyers, who are starting out their careers?
Don’t buy into imposter syndrome and be ready to take the leap of faith. I hear about this all the time and have been guilty of it myself: if people constantly question your right to be where you are, in the position you are in, you may start to doubt your own qualifications. The question creeps in: Am I good enough? Never let the answer to that be anything less that “yes”. You are where you are, because you deserve to be there. And, if a next-level opportunity comes your way, do not let that voice tell you that you are not ready. I guarantee you that there are very few men who let that imposter syndrome take roots, so don’t fall victim to it.
What do you think the legal profession needs to do in order to improve opportunities for women litigators (in-house and/or private practice)?
The first step in any remediation is doing a root cause analysis. I feel like that is the step that has been missing in changing the legal profession and creating more access and inclusivity for female litigators. It may be as simple as having senior leadership in-house and partners at firms ask women about their experiences and what needs to be different in order for the environment to be conducive to their success. And, once the issues are identified, the leadership needs to be ready to hear it—good, bad and ugly, and make a change.
Clearly it won’t be that simple, and there are concrete musts like mentorship, sponsorship and creating developmental opportunities. But, I think it’s a great start.
Finally, what achievement from your career are you most proud of?
When I moved in-house, I knew that as a black woman, I was tackling on a tremendous responsibility taking on a position where I could choose counsel and help other lawyers in their career development. At the end of the day, law firms are businesses and it is the bottom line that matters. As a diverse female attorney with decision making authority, I am a gatekeeper for outside counsel opportunities and have an obligation to be vocal about the need for diverse and equal representation across color, gender, or sexual orientation. I am immensely proud of the fact that I have been able to work for companies that are aligned with my passion for diversity and inclusion and have empowered me to give opportunities to other female litigators, people of color and other diverse attorneys as they develop their careers at law firms.