As the winner of the ‘Litigation Team of the Year’ at the 2016 Global Counsel Awards, we asked PD Villarreal, senior vice president of global litigation at GlaxoSmithKline, his opinion on what it takes to be a successful in-house counsel, the best way to advise senior leadership and what winning the award meant to him and the team.

Describe your current role (responsibilities, size of team, structure).

I am the senior vice president of global litigation, so I am responsible for all of the company’s significant global litigation, with the exception of tax and patent litigation which are run by the tax and patent groups. From investigations and chronic liability lawsuits to regulatory interactions – I cover pretty much everything. I have 15 lawyers in total, with a significant contingency in Philadelphia and Raleigh, a smaller outpost in London and, at the moment, one lawyer each in Washington, DC and Belgium. They all report to me, including the procurement group for the legal organisation. I also have a group of nurses who review medical records for us who are housed in my organisation and a records management group.

What led you to a career in-house?

I was a young partner at SNR Denton (now Dentons) in Chicago. I was doing well and enjoying the work, but I felt that there was a lack of intellectual energy and excitement within the private law practice in general. I read an article by Jeffrey Kindler, who was head of litigation at General Electric and later became chief executive officer of Pfizer, and the article energised me. He was doing really innovative, industry-leading things and it really started me thinking that perhaps the energy I was seeking had moved in house. Shortly afterwards, I received a call from a headhunter looking to fill a litigation position at General Electric working for Kindler and it seemed serendipitous – so began my career in-house.

In your current role, what is the most challenging situation that you have faced? What are the most significant challenges that in-house lawyers are likely to face over the next few years?

The challenges facing pharmaceutical companies such as GSK  are increasingly global in nature. Once upon a time my team and I would have been really US focused, but that is now becoming less true  – and while a good thing, it does increase the hurdles you face as head of litigation.

While nobody has a crystal ball, I think that the global decline in nation states and the rise in tribalism will probably be reflected in legal challenges, as they will inevitably have a legal face. In the United States and other jurisdictions, specific to the pharmaceutical industry, there will be significant pricing issues.  We are also entering into a period in which the government’s expectations for private corporate behaviour are rising; therefore, companies will really have to think hard about their role in relation to society as a whole. The question “is this legal?” will be inadequate when asking about the conduct of a company – we must take a much more holistic approach, looking at whether it is consistent with our values and our commitments to our customers and our constituency. These are the sorts of questions we will have to ask going forward.

Are there particular types of legal issues that you routinely refer to outside counsel? And what kind of matters do you tend to handle in-house?

Local issues are handled by the general practice lawyers in the specific countries. My group’s job is to handle the larger cases, which often involves  outside counsel. Managing outside counsel is the first job; however, the second job is to ensure that we provide guidance and advice on the larger issues we face and try and prevent future crises by advising them on how to structure business practices in a way that minimises future risk.

What do you consider to be the essential qualities for a successful in-house lawyer?

In my view, the best in-house lawyers – not necessarily the most successful, but those who really make a lasting impact on the organisation – are those with the courage to influence the company to do the right thing, not just from a strictly legal compliance standpoint, but from the point of being consistent with the company’s professed values. This often requires courage in the face of both commercial pressure and the pressures of day-to-day life. These are the lawyers who I admire the most and who ultimately stand out as having the most positive influence on the organisation. Closely related to that trait is leadership – the ability to energise and motivate the team and to keep them engaged and enthusiastic about the company’s mission and their work. They must have the courage and vision for how to realise the company’s values and be able to communicate those things to the team.

What’s important for in-house counsel to consider when advising senior leadership?

First, you must understand that senior leadership is always a balancing act. You must balance the business needs and legitimate commercial interests of the organisation against the need to be compliant with the law. You are of most value when you have the ability to step back and see all aspects of the pressures confronting business leaders. You cannot be one-dimensional or focused solely on the legal aspect; you must take a holistic and balanced approach to the situation. Only then can you give the best advice.

How does the legal department contribute to your company’s growth?

Particularly within the pharmaceutical industry, some of the key destabilisers of growth are legal or compliance failures. You see this time and time again. Our job is to make sure that as the company moves forward on the commercial, business and technology side, we do not end up hitting dead ends through compliance or legal failures. We must be able to liberate the company to do what it does best and avoid getting derailed by legal failures.

With regard to your industry, are there any significant developments worth highlighting?

Nobody is sure what impact Brexit will have on the pharmaceutical industry. The European Union and the United Kingdom are clearly key players in the entire industry, so I think everybody will be watching closely. Achieving the right balance between innovation and accessibility is another important factor in the United States and other jurisdictions as well, so I think this will be a big development.

If not a lawyer, what would you be?

I think if I could have been anything in the world, I would have been a folk singer – a man with a guitar writing songs about politics and romance!

What did winning a Global Counsel Award mean to you?

I am most thrilled about this award because of what it says about my team. They are truly magnificent, having dedicated themselves to  some really difficult cases and even travelling all over the world for extended periods of time. Pursuing this award for them was my way of driving home how much I appreciate them, how much I love them and how much I value being their leader.

The purpose of the Global Counsel Awards is to identify those in-house counsel, both teams and individuals that excel in their specific roles. The primary aim is to reward lawyers for demonstrable achievements across the full spectrum of in-house responsibility, not simply those who have acted on high-profile transactions. To make a nomination for the 2017 awards please click here.  

For further information on the awards, please visit