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Innovative Partnership Transforms the Practice of Law

By Jennifer J. Salopek

Continuous improvement is often touted by organizations but many such claims lack substance. Not so in the case of the Pfizer Legal Alliance (PLA), a well-established initiative that relies on consistent self-examination to increase its effectiveness and efficiency. Designed as a long-term collaborative partnership between Pfizer and 19 law firms that aims to transform the way legal services are delivered and valued, the PLA has a designated Chief Counsel in Ellen Rosenthal, who's always asking herself what she could do better.

The PLA was created by Pfizer General Counsel Amy Schulman in 2009 as an alternative to the traditional billable hour. She believes that the traditional approach creates a barrier to client–firm relationships and negatively affects the quality of legal outcomes. "The PLA rejects the idea of a relationship between hourly billing and value," she says.

Amy Schulman

Each firm works on a flat-fee basis established at the beginning of each calendar year. The firms provide legal services to Pfizer on the full range of matters facing the company. Approximately 70 percent of Pfizer's addressable legal budget is currently spent within the PLA. There is no financial incentive for firms to compete for work within the PLA and they are encouraged to work together. Firms are rewarded with opportunities to expand their scope of work on high-profile projects, develop trust and long-term relationships with Pfizer and each other, and deepen their knowledge of Pfizer and the pharmaceutical industry.

"The PLA represents true collaboration: mutuality of goals, accountability, and firms partnering with each other. I think it helps us get back to the pleasure and satisfaction of practicing law," Schulman says.

The fine-tuning often stems from the results of regular surveys of member firms, says Rosenthal. "One thing we learned was that we needed better communication between Pfizer and the firms than I could accomplish on my own," she says. An innovation a year into the project engages dedicated senior Pfizer lawyers from the Legal and Compliance Divisions as Pfizer Alliance Leaders (PALs), each of whom is assigned to a single firm to facilitate collaboration and communication. Each firm appoints a Relationship Partner, who serves as a liaison with the PAL and acts as the primary point of contact between the firm and Pfizer. PALs and Relationship Partners meet monthly to discuss top matters, issues related to quality/quantity of work, secondments, educational opportunities, and more.

Two additions to the program in the past year are sources of great pride for Rosenthal: the Associate Roundtable and the Junior Associate Program. The Associate Roundtable brings together star associates from each member firm; self-governed, the group has become a strong social network in which the associates can cross-refer matters. Each Roundtable member is paired with a Pfizer mentor, who identifies opportunities for the associates to do more high-profile work. The Roundtable also developed a CLE program for Pfizer attorneys that is conducted monthly via live at Pfizer as well as webcast to Pfizer offices and to all of the Alliance firms.

The Junior Associate Program was developed to strengthen the professional development of high-potential law school graduates through hands-on exposure to Pfizer legal matters. Launched in September 2011, the program rotates three first-year lawyers, two of whom who completed joint JD/MBA programs, between Pfizer and a PLA firm for two years. They will ultimately join Pfizer or the firm as third-year associates.

"Most corporations don't hire newly minted lawyers, but we see it as a great opportunity to build a home-grown team," says Rosenthal. "Both of these programs demonstrate our commitment to the future of the relationship with the PLA firms, and it is a real joy to see these associates grow."

Ellen Rosenthal

The PLA allows Pfizer to harness a cohesive, collaborative pool of legal expertise to quickly, productively and efficiently address matters and resolve issues, ultimately leading to more favorable outcomes. Last year, for example, the PLA led negotiations for master services agreements (MSAs) with two contract research organizations to make them preferred clinical trial service providers for five years. The complex transactions—conducted in parallel—had to be completed simultaneously and confidentially within a very tight timeframe, and involved Pfizer lawyers and two firms. One firm took the lead on drafting each MSA, while providing secondary support to the other firm. As issues or questions arose, the teams met to discuss and resolve them. The result was two successfully negotiated, aligned, and high-quality deals in a span of just three months, along with best practice lessons that continue to benefit PLA legal work.

"Research shows that diverse teams that collaborate get better results," Schulman says. "That is borne out all the time in the PLA."

Rosenthal says she spent most of 2011 embedding operational tools for the PLA, such as the virtual communications hub that connects more than 700 Pfizer and firm lawyers—the "PLA Exchange." The site is updated daily and features an expertise locator; conversation communities; daily news updates; articles on the PLA, Pfizer, and participating firms; and helpful resources that facilitate feedback and knowledge sharing. She also developed the template for a monthly report that the firms can generate for their PALs.

"This year, the PLA has really begun to feel like an established institution; we're standing on solid ground and can continue to evolve and mature" Rosenthal says. Up next? Goals to drive incentives and awards, a pro bono program, and a diversity program.

"We are looking toward a long-term future," says Rosenthal.

Pfizer Legal Alliance Member Firms:

  • Boies Schiller & Flexner
  • Bradley Arant Boult Cummings
  • Clifford Chance
  • DLA Piper
  • Goodell DeVries Leech & Dann
  • Hughes Hubbard
  • Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore
  • Jackson Lewis
  • Kaye Scholer
  • Kirkland Ellis
  • Ropes & Gray
  • Shook Hardy & Bacon
  • Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
  • Torys
  • Tucker Ellis
  • Watkins & Eager
  • Wheeler Trigg O'Donnell
  • White & Case
  • Williams & Connolly

From the Judges

"Pfizer has had visibility for some time with the significant programs they have implemented. This submission is… an example of focusing on areas that really matter, not the peripheral stuff. And it shows how costs can be reduced and predictability achieved while at the same time improving outcomes."