Leaders in Law: Interview with Sarah Wang

When the AstraZeneca vaccine was first introduced, it was hailed as a milestone in turning the tide on the coronavirus and now is a global gamechanger. In this interview, Sherry talks with Sarah Wang, Deputy General Counsel, International & Japan for AstraZeneca, about her secrets to success in this UK-headquartered pharmaceutical giant. Highly respected in Shanghai’s legal community, Sarah is known for her intelligence, determination and graciousness. Before meeting her, I was told that she is an exceptional lawyer with a charismatic personality. During the interview, I found her to be a likable, engaging, enthusiastic person who often dared to step out of her comfort zone. And in every step in her career, she succeeded.

Sherry: Sherry Xu (Hughes-Castell, Director)

Sarah: Sarah Wang (AstraZeneca, Deputy General Counsel, International & Japan)

The Making of a Gentle Warrior

Having graduated from Shanghai No.3 Middle School for Girls, its twin predecessors being the St. Mary’s Hall and McTyeire High School, her school motto, “independence, ability, care, elegance,” was imprinted on Sarah’s mind.  She was also profoundly influenced by Chinese author Lin Yutang. Lin regards life as a journey, not a destination. His attitude of focusing on enjoying the process rather than the result has clearly impacted Sarah’s view of life.

In the late 1990s, Chinese law graduates generally had three career options: judicial organizations, enterprises, or law firms. After having interned briefly with the court and a brief working experience with a bank, Sarah realized living a predictable life was not what she wanted. She was curious about the unknown outside world and keen on exploring more challenges and possibilities. Sarah applied for many US law schools, was accepted to a few LLM programs and decided to go to Northwestern University Law School in Chicago with a scholarship.

After LLM graduation, Sarah joined a mid-sized Chicago law firm to work on their newly formed “Chinese Desk”. As much as she felt lucky to land such a wonderful opportunity, she asked herself, “if I am only doing what I could have done in China, why did I come to the U.S.? ” With that thought in mind, she went back to Northwestern Law School to complete her J.D. studies and got licensed in both New York State and Illinois so that she could be a “regular” US lawyer just as her American peers. After graduation, her wish came true – she joined an international firm, DLA Piper, as a U.S. Associate in its Corporate M&A group in Chicago.

However, good days never last long – the financial tsunami occurred sooner after Sarah joined DLA Piper. The M&A practice disappeared overnight. Facing potential layoff,  adaption was rule No. 1 for survival. With a timely opportunity, Sarah switched to the real estate finance team, finding a niche in US REITs where overseas inbound investment was active.

With six years of hard work,  life seemed well settled in the US. Her family evolved into a typical middle-class Chinese American family – large house in a nice suburb, commuting to work downtown every day, and BBQs with other families during the weekends.   However,  predictable routine life never sits well with Sarah. “ In the US, new Chinese young professionals may have a good job and live an upper-middle class life, but we still struggle a lot to merge into the mainstream and feel truly empowered.” So, when opportunity came, the family moved back to China, and Sarah transferred to DLA Shanghai to continue her practice here.

Back then the model of law practice in China was significantly different than in the US. While in the US lawyers usually strive to become subject experts as years of experience increase, in China it is more of a generalist model.  As a mid-level associate coming from the “headquarters” with substantial US REITs experience, Sarah was on a new journey to become a senior lawyer in capital markets, M&A transactions, fund, FDI and general corporate, real estate, etc.

The pressure and workload were intense. it is easy for her to lose track of how many nights she went home blindly in the dark, so she could only tiptoe to see her sleeping children . Like many young female lawyers who struggled to find a little more time to be with their family and kids, an in-house opportunity with a different business environment and work style was welcomed with open arms. Here begins Sarah’s journey as an in-house counsel (although in a hindsight – never assume a good lifestyle is guaranteed, if you want to excel in any job!)

Sherry: Sarah, you have said you like working with lawyers who have private practice experience and always try to be “accommodating” to them because you understand their struggles to adapt to in-house as you have been through similar uncertainties. Would you share with us your transition experience?

Sarah: First of all, it takes a bit adjustment on self-esteem.  Some seemingly trivial matters can be hard to take in at the beginning – for example, moving from your private office to an open office environment. More significantly, it is a mindset change of how we provide legal service.  When we are in law firms, we offer advice to in-house lawyers on legal issues. How to carry out the advice usually is not our concern. When you are part of the company, you work with the business units side by side, day in and day out, to solve real business problems and provide practical solutions. In the beginning, it is hard for lawyers coming from law firms to walk the fine line between legal and business advice because a company’s structure is far more complicated than that of a law firm. When our legal expertise are encountered with commercial, finance, HR…expertise,  in-house lawyers may either become defensive or start to doubt about their judgment. My advice to new in-house lawyers is that, believing in your judgment and instinct. Never doubt your professional capabilities. Also, never take your business partners as your opponents and waste time trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong. Consider it a great opportunity to learn first-hand from other professionals what you are not good at, and be confident to express your own opinion to work as a team.

Sherry: I know you had a great time with AstraZeneca. There were extensive deals. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi stated in “Mental Flow,” people are happiest when they feel in control of their inner thoughts and feelings and experience a sense of enjoyment, purpose, and meaning. You enjoy being fully committed and involved when doing deals. However, back in 2016, AZ’s legal team was small, with limited promotion prospects. So, when an opportunity presented itself, you decided to leave to see more of the outside world. However, consequently, you changed jobs twice within nine months and came back to AZ. Have you ever worried that your resume looks too jumpy or thought you should hang in there longer?

Sarah: Obviously I do not advocate for jumping around just for higher pay or title. However, if an opportunity presents you with the experience that you feel lacking in your current role,  I don’t think one should go against her heart and keep the status quo merely for the sake of making her resume look good. The decision to be made has to be in the context of the essential issues, such as industrial, technical, and managerial experience the job can offer.  The lesson I learned is that in-house jobs can vary in a wide span. Before making a decision, don’t just focus on the job description, but also do as much due diligence as possible on the industry, the company, the leadership team and your future peers.

Sherry: It must feel like coming home when you returned to AZ in 2017 as you know the company and the people there so well. This time you took a more senior role as a member of China leadership team. Can you share how you integrated yourself into the senior management team?

Sarah:  When I came back to AZ as the China General Counsel, I was a seasoned lawyer with more than a decade of legal practice. However, I was still an amateur as a leader in a large company. The first step usually is to learn from, and sometimes “copy”, your role model or predecessor’s style. And that’s what I did. However, I quickly figured out it doesn’t work. A true leader is someone who can lead with her authentic style and be comfortable to be different. Over the years, I have often heard comments that “you don’t look like a lawyer” perhaps because of my petty figure and seemingly soft style.  It bothered me for a while and I tried to look more like a “lawyer” by dressing sharp, speaking louder and hiding my feminine side.  But I soon realized it was foolish to pretend to be someone else because you can’t. Instead, what makes one valuable is actually her unique perspective and authentic leadership style. Later I found out my uniqueness is exactly my strength – good advice delivered in a soft voice actually walks a long way because while you deliver the message, you also deliver respect, understanding and willingness to work together.

Sherry: Speaking of leadership style, many General Counsels told me respect is earned, not given. Therefore, they work hard to fight for respect. On the contrary, your unique approach was to strive for success without a battle. Could you share with us your secret?

 

Sarah: My secret is to speak like a human with common sense (laughs). Forget about the image of those lawyers in “Suits”. As an in-house counsel, you earn respect by being a good lawyer and being a good team player. It is interesting I never feel I need to fight with someone on something. I see everyone in the company working towards the same goal: to make the company successful in a sustainable way. Once you have that mindset, you have less ego to always want to be right, but more motivation to find a truly workable solution as a team. Most lawyers have strong analytical skills, if you can couple it with empathy and good communication, you don’t have to fight for respect.

I also want to talk a bit about so called “office politics”. I have always been puzzled why one can have so many “enemies” in an organization (laughs). I think at the end, it is all about understanding other people’s perspective and communication methods. Everyone in the company has their own KPI, and people will always first consider any problem from their own perspective. However, this does not exclude mutually beneficial compromises and win-win cooperation. Most of the time, solutions are not that black and white. If we put our heads together through understanding each other by effective communication, most of the time we can reach a plan that meets both parties’ goals. For example, some time ago, our European region reported that low-priced medicines from a particular country under my region were dumped in many European markets, disrupting the European market price.  As a matter of fact, this country does have maximum price restrictions, and such exportation is not illegal under the local regulations. From the perspective of Competition Law, we cannot interfere.  Although this was not a purely legal issue, it is an issue that needs to be addressed. Firstly, I arranged a meeting for all parties to explain their concerns directly. Then, I helped both sides to report to their superiors the legal difficulty and unique problem that we are facing, and managed to persuade the business to adjust business arrangements and targets accordingly, thus reduce the pressure on all parties. At the same time we continue to explore arrangements that can mitigate the situation within the legal framework of the local market. As I told my lawyers, it is not enough to be a good lawyer, but equally important to be a good project manager who can turn her advice into a reality.

Sherry: As a Chinese sitting in Shanghai, your current role as an International General Counsel of a UK-headquartered company is unprecedented, and truly deserved. Do you have any tips for mid to senior-level in-house lawyers to prepare for future senior promotion?

Sarah: First of all, we have to be a good lawyer because practicing law is our profession, the real value of our career. When I was the China General Counsel, I was personally in charge of all China business development projects’ legal support. The legal advisory side is what I like and a skill that I can never lose as a lawyer. Later on, I got promoted to be the International Head. Despite that, I am still more than willing to handle these matters myself whenever appropriate. I keep telling myself that I must remain familiar with the company’s operation and business and my legal practice.

Secondly, communication. You must be willing to spend time to talk to people, and even more importantly, listen to people, and truly understand what they are saying. I don’t mind becoming friends with my colleagues, but I am also not bothered to have frictions at work. I don’t take it personally.

Thirdly,  is leadership skills. How to develop your leadership skills? Due to legal’s role in a company, most in-house legal teams are not likely to be a big department. In most circumstances, we have a flat and lean structure. Therefore, young lawyers must seize every opportunity in daily work to improve your management skills by so called “leading  without authority” through leading cross-function projects, training programs, or industrial legal groups, etc.

Fourthly, it is visibility. However, this must be a mutual interaction between the line manager and the lawyer herself.  First, the boss must actively seek opportunities for young talents to be  exposed to senior management locally and globally.  At the same time, young lawyers must also have the willingness to develop and seize every opportunity to present themselves actively. Smart leaders always notice when talents show their unique strength, so never underestimate any presentation opportunities, formal or informal. Of course, don’t fake your motivation; you should follow your heart.

Sherry: In the past few years, you have grown up in the Chinese team and have made yourself stand out from your regional General Counsel peers to become their boss now. But, I have to admire your high emotional intelligence for taking two successful role changes in a short time.

Your current role is a position initially set up in Cambridge, UK. However, because of the Chinese market’s importance and your family considerations, you chose Shanghai as a location. This led to a famous saying in the community, “Chinese manage the international market from China.” What have been your stand-out experiences so far in this role over the past two years?

 

Sarah: First of all, I realized that I couldn’t manage everything, so I need to prioritize. Our China legal team is very strong, and I know the business and team pretty well to be comfortable to delegate. For the rest of the team, since I don’t share the same culture background to build up a natural trust with my team members, I paid extra attention to my overseas teams in the first two years. Secondly, I tried my best to present my team to the commercial and legal community to provide them with opportunities to showcase their work. Thirdly, I spent a lot of time creating platforms for knowledge exchange and community building to connect my lawyers in China, Asia Area, Russia/Eurasia, Australia, Middle East & Africa and Latin America, because I think it is a unique asset the company has to truly navigate the complicated legal framework for a multi-national pharmaceutical company.

Sherry:  Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.  Your career development is incredibly inspiring for all of us.

Sarah:  Thank you very much.

Published by Hughes Castell

Asia's Premier Firm for Global Legal, Compliance, Risk and Regulatory Executive Search

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