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Quotient Sciences Executive Director Legal Affairs, Michael Astle

May 16, 2023

Quotient Sciences Executive Director Legal Affairs, Michael Astle tells us about his change of career to the legal profession and working as an in-house lawyer for UK and US based pharma company Quotient Sciences.

Our interview with Michael is the latest in Florit Legal’s In-house Legal Journeys® series.

Tell us a little more about Quotient and what makes it attractive to work there.

Quotient Sciences helps its clients design, make and test new medicines. From locations in Florida and Philadelphia in the US, as well as Alnwick, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Reading in the UK we serve clients from the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world to tiny Biotech with just a handful of employees.

I was first attracted to the company due to its friendly and collaborative culture as well as the difference it makes in bringing new medicines to market. From my initial conversation it was clear that everyone is committed to advancing medicines as quickly and safely as possible – what we now call Molecule to Cure, Fast.

I love the supportive environment here, with everyone pulling in the same direction. It is fascinating to work with a super-educated bunch of people – at some firms the lawyers tend to be some of the more educated folk, but at Quotient I am surrounded by people with Doctorates and PhDs which provides for a really stimulating work environment.

How has the company helped you to develop in your role? 

I have been blessed with great opportunities to grow at Quotient, both through being tasked with building a Legal team from scratch and benefitting from great mentors such as my boss Simon Lee.

As I have spent more time in my role I have been able to expand my areas of focus, from an initial emphasis on contracts and privacy to other areas of law such as corporate governance, property and disputes.

Being able to lead our ESG initiatives has been really rewarding for me – the opportunity to make a difference to our planet and people has been really pleasing, as well as the chance to learn a new discipline.

I took the University of Cambridge Business Sustainability Management short course last year and enjoyed the diverse and challenging content, which I have since been able to use in my ESG role at Quotient.

What are the key issues facing the pharma industry and what is the impact for you as an in-house lawyer?

Drug development is time consuming and expensive – bringing a new drug to market takes 10-15 years and upwards of $350m, so there are huge gains to be made for society if that process can be shortened or made less expensive. At Quotient we look to compress those timelines by offering a range of complementary services at different points along the development pathway.

As an inhouse legal team we recently introduced a modular contracting approach which allows clients to only negotiate the aspects of a contract relevant to their immediate needs, but with the flexibility to bolt on further short modules as their drug progresses. This has been a big hit and has saved a lot of time and money for all parties.

How do you see that the challenges for in-house lawyers have changed over the years?

The breadth of topics which in-house lawyers are asked to address is huge and it can be a big challenge knowing enough about this wide range of diverse areas to be an effective adviser.

I think most businesses are sensible enough to not expect their in-house lawyers to know everything, but if you want to succeed as an in-house lawyer, especially at Head of Legal or GC level, then you need awareness of the full spectrum of legal and business issues and processes.

It can be difficult to achieve this but I find inquisitiveness, reading widely and keeping abreast of business news to be great ways to achieve this.

Based on your past experiences, what would you like law firms to do that they don’t currently do?

Law firms sit on a huge, valuable resource – their lawyers – which are often underutilised from a business development and marketing perspective.

If law firms could encourage even a couple of articles each year from all of their lawyers they would have a treasure trove of quality resources which would benefit their clients (including in-house lawyers) and deliver them many new clients…I am amazed they do not leverage this ability to its maximum effect.

When you recruit in-house legal colleagues, what are the key things you look for? 

Commercial awareness and the ability and willingness to give a reasoned opinion are critical for me.

No matter at which level I am recruiting for I hope to see an interest in current hot topics for business (for example, an understanding of codes of ethics such as those that kept Gary Lineker and the BBC busy recently, or the potential ripple effects of a bank like SVB going under) and the confidence and skill to talk about it, even at a high level.

Together these demonstrate an inherent curiosity for the business world and a desire to understand how things work – two crucial skills in an in-house lawyer.

What attracted you to being a legal professional in the first place?

I owned a relocation business in Spain for 7 years, during which time I helped hundreds of people settle in a new country, assisting them with new homes and businesses.

Whilst working for myself had many advantages, I was always intrigued by the lawyers I interacted with – they seemed to have endless knowledge and be able to turn their hands to many different things – it made me think ‘I’d like to do this and it would keep me fulfilled for a long time’.

Fast forward 15 years later and I am delighted with my choice – the variety and complexity makes it an enduringly interesting career.

What’s the most challenging, unusual or thought-provoking interview question you’ve ever been asked? 

My favourite interview question is actually one for the prospective employer – “if I were appointed to the role, what would I have to accomplish in the first 100 days to be successful in your eyes?”.

I love it as it helps you as a candidate understand the key priorities for the potential employer, puts you in the role in their eyes and gives you a task list to hit the ground running if you get the job.

What is the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

The best piece of career advice I ever received was in a book lent to me by my driving instructor the night before my driving test (thanks Alan Busitil!)….with a warning not to stay up all night reading it and to get some rest instead!

The book was The Magic of Thinking Big by David J Schwarz, from 1959, which has many nuggets inside, such as curing yourself of ‘excusitis’ the failure disease, and ‘going first class’ in everything you do.

The book is over 60 years old now but a real classic and so inspirational – I have bought numerous copies over the years for myself and friends.

What practical advice would you give to someone in practice looking to move in-house?

When moving in-house from private practice a key skill needed is the confidence in your own opinion – no-one will be formally signing off your work, no-one will appreciate legal advice in a vacuum and no-one will want to read a long advice note…instead your value will be measured by your ability to give a timely, reasoned opinion which you stand behind.

Have you ever made the wrong call on something professionally, and if so what did you learn?  

There have been occasions, particularly when I was fresh from my academic training, when I would relish the opportunity to show my new-found learning in a lengthy email covering all bases – but this usually didn’t fit the bill and invariably met with a deafening silence from my colleagues.

Of course, it is important for you as the in-house lawyer to know the law inside out and to think through the potential ramifications of something, however when it comes to what you communicate to your colleagues then short and sweet with a recommendation is much more impactful…if folk want to discuss in more detail they will come and ask you.

When do you think a company should hire its first in-house legal counsel?

Ready for the classic lawyer answer?

It depends!

I’ve worked with good sized businesses (c150 colleagues) which have only just got to the point of hiring an in-house lawyer…this has worked well for them as the management team were well organised, competent and familiar with the ‘corporate world’.

Conversely I have worked with much smaller businesses where the management team were less well versed with ‘how things work’ from a corporate perspective and a good in-house lawyer would have made a world of difference to them even when they had 30-40 colleagues.

The other factor is what type of in-house lawyer they hire – a great one will be a superb addition and help them scale fast and compliantly, whereas an in-house lawyer without the confidence or experience to command respect may well end up being underutilised and side-lined.

What particular pieces of legal tech could you not do without?

I love our CLM system Parley Pro – whilst it is not perfect the contracts database functionality is phenomenal: easy to use, instantly customisable and with rich data. It helps democratise access to contracts and allows me to answer complex queries from the business quickly, which used to take hours to respond to.

What do you do to support your own mental health and/or that of your team?

Allowing people the opportunity to be heard and genuinely listening to their needs helps create a positive environment for everyone’s mental health.

Regular team meetings where all colleagues contribute every time and taking the time to listen to everyone is really valuable.

How have work practices changed at Quotient as a result of Covid?

Like many workplaces, Covid turbocharged our move to more remote working – the majority of the Legal team are now WFH 4 days per week with just one day a week or fewer in the office.

Many of our team have young families so this increased flexibility is invaluable.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?

Following my local football team Nottingham Forest keeps me entertained, frustrated, excited and occasionally distraught! My son Eddie is 3 ½ so is a great source of fun and enjoyment, recently joined by his little sister Lottie this January.

What was your very first job?  

A lifeguard – an accurate reflection of my younger self – lots of quieter time looking like I was relaxing with intermittent bursts of energy!

If you could spend an hour with anyone in the world of business who would it be?

An hour with Bill Gates would be truly inspirational – a man who has built one of the largest companies in history and applied his considerable brain to solving some of humanity’s biggest challenges. I expect the learnings and depth of conversation would be memorable….for me anyhow, he may not think the same of me!

Favourite film?

Top of the list is ‘Heat’ by Michael Mann. It was the first film in which Pacino and De Niro starred opposite each other and although they only share the screen for a few minutes out of 200+ those moments are electric. Mann the Director made a low budget version of the film earlier in his career, L.A. Takedown, which is a treat to watch to see how the Hollywood version developed from it.

Favourite holiday destination?

Mallorca is a firm favourite for me – I was lucky enough to live there for three memorable summers in my youth as a holiday rep so it feels a bit like home. The island has a little bit of everything, delicious food, beautiful beaches, welcoming locals, vibrant culture and passion – so you can find something to enjoy no matter your age.

A place on my bucket list is the Azores – I am a sucker for the TV show ‘New Lives in The Wild’ where Ben Fogle meets people living in far flung places – and the Azores seems a beautiful tropical microclimate with only a few thousand people on some of the islands, so peaceful but not so small that it could become limiting.

Most embarrassing moment?

Ha, where do I start!

Compering a cabaret in front of 500 paying guests, dressing up and dancing as Elvis on stage, leading group line dancing dressed as a parrot…my time as a holiday rep gave me so many memories!

What would you say is your guilty pleasure?

Over the last few months I’ve committed to sharing some of my experiences as an in-house lawyer on LinkedIn.

I post regularly about in-house life and how in-house counsel can work more effectively and demonstrate more value to their business.

I have found the process intellectually stimulating, emotionally challenging and fantastically rewarding. As I connect with more people from around the globe I am learning so much from them too, it has been a great experience.

You can connect with Michael or follow him at Michael Astle | LinkedIn.


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