In the latest installment of Ropes & Gray’s Alumni @ RopesTalk podcast, strategic transactions partner Abby Gregor interviews Beibei Sun, senior corporate counsel of global licensing and business development at Sanofi. Beibei was an associate in the life sciences group at Ropes & Gray before joining Sanofi in 2021. At Sanofi, she supports the specialty care business unit on licensing transactions and the ventures team on venture capital transactions. In this interview, Beibei talks about the differences between being a deal lawyer at a big firm versus in-house. In thinking about her career, she shares the three pieces of advice she would give to newer lawyers. Beibei also reflects on her time at Ropes & Gray—what she gained from the firm, what she misses most, and how she’s been able to continue doing pro bono work in collaboration with the firm as an alumni.
Abby Gregor: Thank you very much for joining us today for the latest installment of the Ropes & Gray alumni podcast. I’m Abby Gregor, a partner in our strategic transactions group, and I am thrilled to be joined by Beibei Sun, a friend and former colleague also from the strategic transactions group. Beibei, thank you very much for agreeing to come in and speak to us about your path post-Ropes. I know we were very sorry to see you go, but we understand that you had an amazing opportunity ready for you at Sanofi. I was hoping to start our conversation today by talking about your role at Sanofi and also how you came across the opportunity.
Beibei Sun: Thank you for having me today, Abby. It’s great to make my way back to the Prudential Center. The opportunity at Sanofi came to me when I was a fifth-year associate. At that time, I was an associate in Ropes & Gray’s Boston office in the life sciences practice group (now part of the strategic transactions group). I was working on transactions like licensing, mergers and acquisitions, and venture capital, but mainly for life sciences clients. The opportunity at Sanofi came to me through a friend of mine who was part of Sanofi’s global transactions team. I was really intrigued after speaking to her about the scope and level of the sophisticated transactional work that Sanofi’s team was doing in-house, so I decided to apply and interview. During the interview, I was able to speak to more members of the team and also business stakeholders that I would be interacting and collaborating with. I was really blown away, because this is the team at Sanofi that supports BD and licensing transactions for the specialty care business unit—which is in comparison to vaccines, general medicines, and consumer products—and includes very exciting therapeutic areas such as oncology, immunology and inflammation, rare diseases, neurology, and platform technologies. Basically, this team supports very high-stake licensing transactions, and joining this team would allow me to sit at the spearhead of the innovation that is happening at Sanofi. After getting the offer from Sanofi, the prospect to continue to do cutting-edge licensing work and lead my own transactions at one of the top pharmaceutical companies and also amongst a great group of business and legal professionals—and getting some more free time for myself and my family—was very exciting, and that’s why I decided to make the jump. In January 2021, I joined Sanofi, and now I’m part of the global BD and licensing legal team. In addition to supporting licensing transactions for specialty care, as I mentioned, I also support venture capital transactions by the Sanofi Ventures team.
Abby Gregor: Having worked with your team a couple times, it’s a very interesting, cutting-edge space, and you are doing the in-depth, complex transactions that I know you really enjoyed when you were at Ropes, so that’s fantastic. What was the most challenging part of the transition for you, and what do you find the most rewarding about being in-house now?
Beibei Sun: In relation to the challenges, first, because I joined in January 2021—that’s when most people were still working remotely—most of my onboarding process was remote. I actually didn’t see my team in person until June 2021, five months into the job. I remember on my last day, which was a Friday that January, I sent back my Ropes & Gray computer in the mail, and then, I logged into my Sanofi computer the following Monday from the same exact home office. That being said, I think the pandemic also made folks more accustomed to video conferencing—because of that, I was able to meet many colleagues and stakeholders at Sanofi from Paris, the rest of Europe and other jurisdictions over Zoom. It was actually helpful in building up good work relations with colleagues in other offices. A real challenge was to navigate an organization the size of Sanofi. When I joined Sanofi, it was very hard not to feel like a drop of water falling into the ocean. Ropes & Gray is a big international firm, however, when I joined Sanofi, they had around 100,000 employees in over 90 different countries, and its legal department had as many lawyers as a mid-sized law firm, so to really find my place in the organization became a challenge. I was able to first anchor with my own team because my manager, their manager, and the rest of the team was incredibly supportive in helping me get settled in and get the support and guidance I needed to do my transactions, but also lining up internal resources that I needed. I was also able to anchor with my deal teams—for every transaction I work on within Sanofi, we would have a big team consisting of members and stakeholders from different functions, so I was able to really build up a good allyship with them.
Abby Gregor: Each deal was iterative with learning the different team members from the various functions.
Beibei Sun: Yes, exactly. I remember a piece of advice I got from a senior business leader when I first joined Sanofi was to “think globally and work locally”—meaning, always keep in mind the big picture of Sanofi’s mission and its strategic priorities, but at the same time, focus on doing the best work you can on the concrete projects on your plate, so that was very helpful in getting me started. As to the most rewarding part, there were so many aspects of the job that I found very rewarding, but I think the biggest one is to be part of a team with the same mission, and then, also be able to see the impact of your work. At Ropes, I would have the chance to work on very exciting transactions, but when a transaction was completed, our client team would move along with the alliance or collaboration that we negotiated, whereas at Sanofi, I become part of the organization that needs to live under the agreement that I negotiate. At first, that can be nerve-racking because the mistakes you make in the contracts can really come back and haunt you, but also, I think that gives you the chance to actually see the impact of your work. For each team and each deal, I’m part of the architect team putting up the deal structure. At the same time, we are trying to bring in the most cutting-edge and promising technology or assets from outside so that we can develop those into life-saving or life-changing therapeutics and vaccines, so that is really a great feeling.
Abby Gregor: It sounds like you’ve definitely hit the ground running. What’s a typical day in the life like at Sanofi, and what do you enjoy about practicing in the life sciences licensing space?
Beibei Sun: As you know, licensing was really part of my job at Ropes that I enjoyed doing the most, so it’s really great to be able to continue doing that at Sanofi. My typical day in the life at Sanofi is the same as a typical day in the life of a deal lawyer. As mentioned, I work on licensing and venture capital transactions, so a lot of my time would be spent on reviewing, drafting, and negotiating term sheets and agreements, or conducting legal diligence on my transactions. I think the difference is that at Ropes, even though we had client calls and meetings, most of my time was spent with documents, while here at Sanofi, the majority of my time is spent on meeting and collaborating with people, either strategizing internally with my team and getting alignment with stakeholders from different functions, or it can be meeting and negotiating with the counterparties. Every day there can be many judgment calls to make, so I feel like I’m constantly changing wearing my legal hat and my business hat, and I enjoy both roles a lot. To borrow the words of my boss, “We’re all business professionals, just with a law degree.” So, that aspect of the work I really enjoy.
As to the actual day-to-day at Sanofi, right now, we’re in the hybrid working mode, so two days of the week I am at the Cambridge Crossing campus—which you visited, Abby—and for those days, I will really try to prioritize in-person meetings. For the other days, I will be working remotely, so I will still have meetings, but I will also try to focus on what I call “deep work sessions” where I can be more focused in doing drafting and reviewing.
Abby Gregor: Do you like that split? Now that you’re doing more of the BD side versus drafting, do you enjoy that? Do you miss being more in the weeds on drafts? I know you still are a lot of the time, but using outside counsel, I would imagine, lightens the drafting load for you.
Beibei Sun: I actually really enjoy the current balance of my work because I still get a chance to do the drafting, but with the support of outside counsel, I think that allows me to have more time to stay at a high level and think more on the strategic perspectives of the transactions, and to be the bridge between the business at Sanofi and the legal perspectives which our outside counsel is helping with. It was a lot of learning, as well, including how we do accounting and how we actually calculate royalties. We also have scientists on the deal from our external innovation team who are very patient in explaining the technologies to me, including how antibody drug conjugate works. I’ve been learning tremendously from our IP team, as well.
Abby Gregor: Yes, so wearing a lot of different hats. That’s exciting though—I can see that being really interesting versus having a focused lens when you’re at the law firm in terms of most of the legal items. From my perspective as outside counsel, we’re not necessarily always brought in on the internal scientific discussions and understanding the technology—we have to do that on our own. Being in the mix internally with the actual scientists I would imagine is really enlightening as you’re trying to put those terms into a draft contract.
Beibei Sun: When I was at the law firm, I don’t think I appreciated how much work and thought was put into structuring a deal. Before we engage outside counsel, there has been very lengthy discussions going on in relation to evaluating the opportunity and thinking about the deal structure. We also need to be especially mindful of all the pain points and operational perspectives from different function teams, so there is a lot of moving things around and strategizing. During that process, in addition to the learning, I think it is also incredibly rewarding to be able to build up a relationship of trust with our business stakeholders and with different function teams, so you are really in it together.
Abby Gregor: Switching over to advice and what you might be able to provide for young associates coming up, given what you’ve learned after your transition, what do you think you would tell younger associates based on your experience to date and hindsight, and what they should be focusing on while at a firm?
Beibei Sun: I would say three things. First of all, I think it’s important to always do good work—that’s so central to our growth as a lawyer. When I first joined Ropes, one great piece of advice I got was, “The only thing you need to worry about is how to become a better lawyer every day, and everything else will just happen organically.” I think that provides really helpful guidance, because I know what I need to focus on, and doing the best work is the way you grow. It’s also the best branding and networking for yourself because when you are doing great work, your work speaks for itself.
The second point is, “never be too busy to learn and reflect.” As we all know, the big law job is very demanding, and if you’re not mindful of the way you work, it can become all consuming at some point. So, have a clear roadmap, be strategic with the type of deals you want to do, the type of expertise you want to build up, and proactively seek out those opportunities. In addition, keep up with knowledge management. Ever since I was a first-year, one practice of mine that I really benefit from is I take a lot of notes on my transactions. I review and reflect on my notes very regularly. I think if you don’t do that, it’s like eating without digesting—sometimes we spend too much time working and not enough time reflecting on how to work more efficiently and effectively.
The third thing is that it’s never too early to start building your professional network, because the best opportunities down the road will come from people who actually know you and know your work. Try to work more with the people who you share their values and who appreciate your styles, and before you know it, you will have built up a group of professional allies around you.
Abby Gregor: That’s one piece of advice that I completely align with you on. I think what you don’t appreciate, even as a junior associate, is that your peers are going to be your future clients. These are people you will come up with, they will go in-house, and by the time you are a mid to senior associate or a partner, those will be the internal stakeholders and the decision-makers. People shift into BD roles here now, so I feel like it’s very important to foster those relationships as early as you can. That’s great advice.
What about for associates who are considering a move in-house—what advice do you have for them as they decide whether to make that career transition?
Beibei Sun: I transitioned in-house relatively recently, and what I have seen is that the in-house experience can be vastly different based on different industries, different stages of companies, and even different geographic locations. When you are considering moving in-house, do your due diligence and talk to people who know the company or who have worked at the company, and to see whether that’s the type of substance of work or work environment that you would enjoy. Another thing I would say is, don’t move for a suboptimal opportunity. As you continue your time at Ropes, getting trained and serving an outstanding client base, your experience will only become more valuable the longer you stay.
Abby Gregor: Yes, and there are also so many networks here. I think the firm is very supportive when and if an associate decides that they want to go in-house, utilizing those networks and making sure, as you said, that it’s the best opportunity it can be—that you’re not just moving to something without doing your diligence.
Beibei Sun: That also reminds me, I think associates should have open conversations with the mentors they trust internally if they feel like they need adjustments to certain aspects of their work. I think it’s important to make this job also work for you so that you can grow and learn more sustainably here at Ropes.
Abby Gregor: Transitioning to that next point, who were your mentors at Ropes, and those in particular who influenced your career to date?
Beibei Sun: I feel very blessed because I really had many wonderful mentors during my time at Ropes, and some of them continue to be my mentors today, including you, Abby. Recently, we worked on transactions together—it’s just so special to be able to work alongside one of my mentors back at the firm who I already worked with and know so well. I think we collaborate very well during negotiations because we understand each other instantly.
Abby Gregor: Absolutely, and I would say I’m the lucky one—I had really hoped to continue to be able to work with you. You were definitely one of my favorite associates that I enjoyed working with when you were here, and to be able to continue that relationship is really special.
Beibei Sun: Thank you so much, Abby. If I have to name mentors, I think two in particular that really showed me what kind of lawyer I wanted to be during my early days at Ropes were Steve Wilcox and Ed Black. Steve was the founder of the life sciences practice group—he was assigned to be my coordinating partner when I was a summer associate—and Ed was the chair of our IP transactions group. I worked on a number of transactions with both of them when I was a first- and second-year—I was just blown away by the breadth of their knowledge and the depth of their experience. Each conference call with them would be a masterclass in how you negotiate and how you work as a lawyer, and also the level of integrity and professionalism they practice was really something that was core to our work. After that, I continued to learn from many other wonderful partners both in the life sciences and IP transaction groups and beyond across the Boston, West Coast and Shanghai offices, on both billable and pro bono work. I think I really benefited from learning from different styles, but I wanted to mention Steve and Ed, because the experience working with them was so formative in the lawyer that I am today.
Abby Gregor: Yes, I don’t think you could have asked for better mentors at an early stage in your career. I completely agree—Steve, especially from my perspective being more on the life sciences side early on, served in that same role for me.
Beibei Sun: Also, I echo the point you made earlier about the value of relationships with your peers because I think some of my best mentors back at Ropes were my peers, either my classmates or associates from close class years. We could really have open conversations about questions we had either in relation to substance or how we worked. As we continue to grow and move along in our careers, they really become very strong allies and we can serve as great resources for each other.
Abby Gregor: I completely agree—the alumni network is so strong. Having people you can ask for precedent or how they approach an issue that they encounter when drafting is like your own little knowledge base, so I entirely agree with that.
What do you miss most about Ropes & Gray generally?
Beibei Sun: I really miss the friendly faces of our colleagues and being able to walk down the hallway and have a casual chat with our wonderful legal executive assistants—I think that work environment is really energizing.
Abby Gregor: They all miss you very much, as well.
Beibei Sun: That’s so sweet to hear. Also, I know everyone who left Ropes really misses Doc Processing, User Support and the wonderful paralegals—sometimes it’s easy to take it for granted when you are working with such great resources every day. When you actually move to another organization where lawyers or legal are no longer the center of the universe, you really feel the difference. I also miss the pro bono program. Ropes has a wonderful pro bono program internally, and not just the opportunities or matters you can work on, but also the great internal resources and expertise you can benefit from as you work on those matters. A good thing is that the other day, I joined a Project Citizenship workshop.
Abby Gregor: I was going to say, I thought you guys were collaborating with Ropes on that.
Beibei Sun: Yes, I attended that workshop—I was able to see some colleagues and alumni, which was great. Now at Sanofi, myself and a few other colleagues are working on our own workshop with Project Citizenship, so that more colleagues from our legal and ethics & business integrity departments can also participate. For me, that’s a great way to stay within the Ropes community through doing pro bono matters.
Abby Gregor: I absolutely love the collaborations with clients—I think that’s really important. To your point, pro bono is something we should all be doing and it’s something we should be committed to. If we’re able to also work with clients while serving pro bono needs, I think that’s the best of all worlds.
How do you feel Ropes prepared you for your current position?
Beibei Sun: To begin, the very fact that I was trained at Ropes actually gave me additional credibility when I started at Sanofi, because Ropes has a stellar reputation in the life sciences legal space. But getting into more detail, I think the four-and-a-half years I spent at Ropes was truly formative. That is true in relation to legal substance, because I really learned from the best transactional lawyers in the life sciences market. I continue to benefit from all of the fundamental skills of drafting, negotiating, communicating and critical thinking, which I built up at Ropes, on a daily basis. That is also true in relation to the way in which you work, because I think a few years at Ropes will be sufficient to train you into a highly functioning professional who’s able to deliver great quality advice and work product, even during very tight timelines and under pressure. I think that level of effectiveness is almost a career superpower.
Abby Gregor: Absolutely, and you did it better than most. I recall quite a few times where you were so eager to work with different partners across different geographies that you would be turning U.S. drafts by day and then working with Shanghai colleagues at night. It was incredibly impressive to see how much you were able to fit in during your time here.
Beibei Sun: All those fun times. I think it can be a lot when you work with different teams across time zones, but I also really benefited from learning and the mentorship on both sides. All of that being said, I think more importantly is how Ropes prepared me—being the place where I started my legal career, Ropes defined what type of lawyer and professional I am today. I think as lawyers, our upbringing at Ropes is all about dedication to our clients and our teams. The level of excellence in our work and advice, and the respect for even the most difficult counterparty on the other side, we always try to function with the highest level of integrity and professionalism. I think all of that just becomes part of you.
Abby Gregor: You embody that. Having now seen you in action on negotiations, I am so incredibly impressed, but I also admire how you keep your cool in situations. I think we’d love to take credit for that, but that’s just a skill set that you yourself have developed, and it aligns with who you are as a person and as a lawyer. It’s been so rewarding for me to be able to see you in that role in-house.
We’re going to switch to some lightning round questions. What FLIK café item do you miss the most?
Beibei Sun: I really miss the great cookies. I think when we were having trainings as associates back at Ropes, there were always very nice cookies and little desserts on the sidebar.
Abby Gregor: Yes, they are still there—we can go get some after. Now that you can take time off with some predictability, I hope, what is your favorite vacation destination?
Beibei Sun: Yes, my vacations now have more certainty and predictability. My husband and I have really wanted to make our way back to Hawaii. We have been to the four bigger islands and we enjoyed each of them, so really hoping to go back. We also want to go back to Paris again, because we really enjoy the food, the art, and the architecture. Maybe because I’m working at a French company right now, I’m obsessed with everything French.
Abby Gregor: I was going to say, you’re at the right company to make that happen. Lastly, finish this sentence: Ropes & Gray is…
Beibei Sun: Ropes & Gray is a super lawyer training camp. I think it’s really inspiring to see the impactful work our alumni have been doing with their time post-Ropes.
Abby Gregor: Thank you—it was amazing having you here today. I always love seeing you in person, working with you and getting to spend time with you. This has been really special hearing you reflect on your time here and also very exciting to hear about what you’re doing at Sanofi. Thank you very much for coming in.
Beibei Sun: Thank you so much for having me, Abby. It’s my pleasure, and it has been fun.
Abby Gregor: For the alumni that are out there, please visit our alumni website, which is alumni.ropesgray.com to stay updated on alumni and to get the latest news about the firm. If you’re interested in switching jobs, there’s a little section on that. If you want to come back to Ropes, let us know. Thanks for listening, and we look forward to the next one.
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