Pfizer’s Legal Sentry
Amy Schulman forwent a career in academia for high-stakes corporate litigation
Published in Corporate Counsel Edition - November 2009 magazine on October 12, 2009
Professional snafus happen even to the Amy Schulmans of the world.
“I like to tell young lawyers about the first deposition that I took, when I was a relatively young associate,” Schulman says. “I was determined to be imposing while sitting across the table, so I screwed up the chair so I would be taller—and I screwed it up so high that no sooner did I sit down than I fell over on my back with my skirt over my head and my legs in the air.”
Following two decades in private practice, and no more chair-raising incidents, she was named general counsel of Pfizer Inc.
This was in June 2008, as she helped the company wade through the complex Celebrex and Bextra products liability lawsuits. “My dealings with Amy led me to conclude that this was a very bright, strategic person, but what she did so masterfully was to use a personable approach to those strategic issues in our litigation,” says Frank Pitre, a plaintiff’s attorney with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy. “Don’t get me wrong—she was tenacious. … But there is no question both sides were happy with the results.”
Schulman has a pronounced ability to multitask. “People function intellectually differently,” she says. “There are people who get anxious having multiple activities going on simultaneously. But one of the reasons I’m happy practicing law is that I actually like having multiple cases going on simultaneously, and, rather than feeling drained, I feel renewed. In that, I’m one of the luckiest people I know.”
Schulman, 49, may have learned a thing or two from her elders. Her father is a lawyer with Moses & Singer and her mother practiced with Cohn, Glickstein & Lurie and in-house for the Service Employees International Union. Her maternal grandfather was the esteemed Judge Edward Weinfeld of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
“Law certainly is the language I grew up with,” Schulman says of her Upper West Side, Manhattan, upbringing. “But if anything, I had something of a contrarian determination to find my own path. My family said they weren’t sure being a lawyer would be interesting enough for me. I think they meant I had a ‘human’ side people didn’t associate with lawyers.”
While a student at the Dalton School on the city’s Upper East Side, she spent two summers working as a paralegal.
“I was always kind of an academic nerd,” she says. “Everybody likes to say they weren’t cool growing up. Well, I really wasn’t cool.”
She went on to attend Wesleyan University, where she majored in English and philosophy, and upon graduating in 1982, taught ethics and English at Fieldston, a private school in Manhattan.
One of her students was the son of Arthur Liman, the trial lawyer who had gained fame investigating the Attica prison riots and, later, the Iran-Contra scandal. On parents’ night, Liman mentioned that he could use a writer’s help in his investigation of New York City’s chief medical examiner, Elliot Gross. Schulman was interested. “Once that project was done, I got zooped into the regular work,” she says. Resigning her teaching position, Schulman joined Liman’s firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, as a paralegal.
“My very first impression, which came before I actually met her, was someone who was often paged in the Paul, Weiss paging system, usually late at night,” says David Nachman, now of counsel with DLA Piper. “I remember she was very busy at trials, working on stuff that was high-intensity.” The two were introduced in 1985 and married two years later, after Schulman finished her first year at Yale Law.
Even then, Schulman still planned to spend her professional life in the ivy halls. “I went to Yale Law School because it was reputed to be a breeding ground for academics,” she says. “But I found I loved the practice. I think it was working with clients. The best thing about being a lawyer is actually listening to people and figuring out what’s going on.”
With a new career trajectory, she graduated from Yale in 1989, gave birth to the first of her three sons, passed the New York Bar, and then started at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in 1990 as an associate in the litigation department.
She recalls a valuable lesson in law: “I remember writing my first memo, and being so proud of my content that I ended up missing the fact that the margins weren’t aligned,” she says. “It was sent back to me, unread, with a note: ‘Fix the marginalia.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I went to Yale Law. Fix the marginalia?’”
Details, she learned, matter. “The best thing my first law firm gave me was the training in the belief that every single bit of the product you give has to be perfect,” she says.
It was an attitude she carried when she moved to DLA Piper in 1997, where she made partner and handled the firm’s biggest and most complex cases. Her clients included GE Healthcare, Cisco, Wyeth, Philip Morris, Kraft Foods and Pfizer.
For Kraft, she helped the company address America’s new concerns about health and wellness; and for Philip Morris, she moved 13 cases to dismissal amid the tenuous tobacco litigation.
But she earned her name defending pharmaceutical companies. She tackled issues involving a range of products, from latex gloves to the dietary supplement L-tryptophan to fen-phen.
In 2005, she began handling class action lawsuits brought against Pfizer by users of its Cox-2 inhibitors, anti-inflammatory drugs that included the arthritis medications Bextra and Celebrex. The suits arose after test results showed the drugs, when taken at a higher dosage, put patients at increased risk for heart attack and stroke. Pfizer withdrew Bextra from the U.S. market, and the company was looking at a debacle similar to the one that threatened Merck with several billion dollars in legal losses by aggrieved users of its own Cox-2 inhibitor, Vioxx.
Schulman, a calm presence in a legal morass that could rattle even the most veteran litigator, was named Pfizer’s national counsel, and took control of a large, and often fractious, group of attorneys working to hammer out a course of action involving some 7,000 plaintiffs in multiple jurisdictions.
“It was a huge engagement for any lawyer, and yet ‘grace under fire’ would be the way to describe her,” says Dan Webb of Winston & Strawn, who also litigated on behalf of Pfizer. “The Celebrex litigation was very intense, involved a huge amount of money, and they trusted Amy to handle the litigation. No matter how much pressure she was under, she never wavered, and stayed on top of things.”
She also stayed in charge. “We had a meeting with eight or 10 law firms in a room with 40 or 50 lawyers, and she’s running the meeting for seven hours,” continues Webb. “Trying to keep the attention of 50 lawyers at the same time is very challenging. But if people picked up their BlackBerrys, she made her displeasure quite clear.”
Her no-nonsense attitude, along with her natural civility and friendliness, even earned her admiration from the other side.
“Because she was so disarming, she was able to get people to talk about the issues in a very candid way, which led people to being able to agree on an approach on how to best resolve the litigation,” says Pitre, the plaintiff’s attorney. “From the outset, Amy and her crew said, ‘Here are the issues that we think need to be fought.’ Her strategy was, ‘Let’s not get bogged down with a bunch of side issues. Let’s deal with these key issues and then sit back and evaluate whether there is a means to resolve the cases.’ She’s like a great quarterback who understands that the quarterback by themselves can’t win the game.”
Amid the litigation, Schulman led Pfizer’s legal team in assisting with an unprecedented television commercial about Celebrex, which conveyed the drug’s medical risks and compared it to other medications. The commercial was especially important because the product had not been advertised for two years.
“In Cox-2, we were dealing with two products that were both on the market, and everything we did could have had a critical impact on patients and physicians prescribing the medication at the time,” says Doug Lankler, Pfizer’s senior vice president and chief compliance officer. “Given the size of our company and the number of people involved, there was massive disagreement about how to do a television commercial.”
In October 2008, the company announced that it was paying $894 million to settle personal injury and consumer fraud cases, as well as claims by state attorneys general. The settlement resolved more than 90 percent of the company’s Cox-2-related personal injury cases, and the claims of 33 states and the District of Columbia.
Four months prior to the resolution of those cases, Pfizer’s CEO, Jeffrey Kindler, asked Schulman to become its senior vice president and general counsel.
“Leaving DLA Piper was the hardest decision I had to make,” she says. “I had rebuffed many offers over the 10 years I had been there. If I was going to go, it was probably at that moment, where I felt I had teams in place that had been largely grown, and where my client relationships were mature, and where I felt that while I was completely engaged in what I was doing, the next 10 years did seem like more of the same rather than the next hill to climb.”
And one of the steepest hills was ahead. In September, the U.S. Justice Department announced a $2.3 billion fine for Pfizer’s promotion of Bextra and other drugs. It included a $1.3 billion criminal penalty, the largest criminal fine in U.S. history. In a statement responding to the charges, Schulman said, “Corporate integrity is an absolute priority for Pfizer, and we will continue to take appropriate actions to further our corporate compliance practices.”
Beyond that, with the recent $68 billion acquisition of Wyeth, Schulman is in the process of restructuring Pfizer’s legal department.
“She has changed the culture quite a bit,” says Heidi Chen, a vice president and assistant general counsel for Pfizer. “She’s a very dynamic leader, and she’s not afraid to challenge people to do things differently. I think she wanted to take people out of their comfort zones.”
In other words, she’s doing exactly what a good educator does. “If I weren’t a lawyer, I would be a teacher,” says Schulman, who has had the opportunity to pursue both endeavors—today she teaches a class at Harvard Business School. With a laugh, she adds, “Anything but math.”