In the latest installment of Ropes & Gray’s Alumni @ RopesTalk podcast, life sciences partner Amanda Austin, who’s also a member of the firm’s alumni committee, interviews alum and friend Heidy (Abreu) King-Jones, former chief legal officer at Provention Bio. Heidy was an associate at Ropes & Gray from 2008 – 2013, after which she took in-house roles at Sarepta Therapeutics, Axcella and Provention Bio. As a self-described “student of law, student of biotech and student of life,” Heidy talks broadly about her career, with detours into the experience of working at Provention Bio during its acquisition by Sanofi. She shares what she learned at Ropes & Gray, including an important lesson about client service. For anyone thinking about next steps in their career, Heidy also offers great advice focused on where you find professional joy versus professional drain. This interview was recorded on May 25, shortly before Heidy’s departure from Provention Bio, which was acquired by Sanofi in April.
Amanda Austin: Let’s start our conversation by talking about your career post-Ropes & Gray.
Heidy King-Jones: I didn’t go too far after leaving Ropes & Gray—I went to a client, Sarepta Therapeutics, in 2013. At the time, Sarepta was a pre-commercial, small biotech that was beginning to scale up and was in the process of filing its first NDA with the FDA for what eventually became its first approved drug, EXONDYS 51, the first muscular dystrophy drug ever to be approved by the FDA. I went to two other companies after that, Axcella and Provention Bio, and had the pleasure of scaling up both companies. After Sarepta, I had the good fortune at Provention Bio of bringing another first-in-class product to market with the approval of Teplizumab. Over the last 10 years, I have spent time in the sweet spot of taking companies public and then focusing on the R&D phase, preparing companies and scaling them up to become ready and compliant for commercialization.
Amanda Austin: What have you found most challenging and also most rewarding about in-house versus law firm life?
Heidy King-Jones: It’s so different and so similar. At the end of the day, one of the things that is most challenging in-house versus Ropes & Gray is that you’re really bringing into every meeting, if you’re doing it right, all the different perspectives that should be at the table as you’re problem-solving—you’re not just bringing in the view of the legal function or head, you’re bringing in your chief commercial officer, chief scientific officer, chief medical officer and your chief financial officer. That is very rewarding because you learn a lot, but it’s challenging because people really have different lenses, push their perspective, and everyone is always trying to do what’s best for patients first and the company. I think it’s challenging to have all of those different points of view at the table, but it’s also what helps you grow. It’s also what leads to creative solving of the myriad of problems that biotech companies face on a day-to-day basis.
Not too dissimilar, I guess, from what was very rewarding at Ropes & Gray. As a deal lawyer during my time at Ropes, I did get to work with attorneys from different disciplines and, of course, learned from the tax lawyers and the employment lawyers—all the great experts that I hire now as in-house attorneys to help me in the world of biotech that I live in.
At both places, I consider myself a student of law, a student of biotech and a student of life. It really is just an honor to work with so many brilliant people. Just like I take pieces of them in things that I learn and that make me a better leader and person, I hope I leave little pieces of me in the things that I’ve learned with all of those that I work with and interact with. So they are both equally rewarding and amazing environments.
Amanda Austin: You recently experienced a major transaction where Provention Bio was acquired by Sanofi. What was that experience like for you, particularly as compared to being a deal lawyer at a law firm?
Heidy King-Jones: Thank God for the Ropes & Grays of the world, because the anatomy of a deal in-house is very mixed in with the business, strategy and what you’re trying to achieve, and then balancing all of that with just running the business. The deal becomes one of your priorities, but until that deal closes, you can’t drop the ball on the business, planning and executing for success as an independent organization. I partnered very closely with Ropes—they represented us on this deal. The Ropes team, much like my time when I was at Ropes, was definitely focused on all the specialists that needed to be involved in the deal, and really ensuring that the process, documents and filings that needed to be made in connection with the deal were all followed and executed flawlessly. In-house, we were then able to focus on the needs of the negotiation points and deal points. I spent a lot of time on the phone in the throes of the deal with my chairman of the board, my CEO and the rest of the board, not just reiterating the more formal points that we would discuss with Ropes & Gray at a board meeting, but also helping them read between the lines and educating them on what the law, legal points or the processes that were reviewed meant for the business, themselves, employees, patients and the products.
At the same time, when you go through a major deal like that the organization gets distracted, so I spent a lot of time helping my fellow leaders at the organization, making sure that the train continues running, for lack of a better word, which is harder than you think because another thing that you have to manage in a deal is leading through uncertainty. People get very nervous—you don’t want to lose your star players and performers at the organization. You want to partner closely with HR and with your culture and culture leaders of your organization, again, to ensure that your train is continuing to run.
Amanda Austin: For folks who may be thinking about going in-house, could you describe a typical day in the life at Provention Bio for you?
Heidy King-Jones: Provention Bio was a virtual organization even before COVID, so that brought a very interesting earlier workday that was happening informally while I got my daughter ready for school, which is great, I have to say. I start there because before I took the job at Provention, I was very concerned about being able to be effective virtually with a team that I had never met in person. Much to my surprise, I was even more effective than I was in my previous jobs, where we all had to get to the office before we started engaging because our days did start earlier and end later, but there was a lot of flexibility in between. My day normally would start with various unscheduled calls from my fellow C-team members. It was not unusual for my day to start with a call from Ashleigh Palmer (CEO and co-founder), and we’d look at the priorities of the day and really make sure that he and I were aligned on things that he was executing on and items that I was executing on, or things that we were jointly going to approach our fellow C-team members with.
Mondays were our executive team meetings, so he and I would normally touch base bright and early. That would be followed by a quick call with our chief commercial officer. As we recently launched a product, you can plan for the best, most compliant and flawless launch that could ever be planned, but all launches have curveballs. Usually, there would be a curveball or two that my chief commercial officer and I would need to connect on or follow up on, or calibration that needed to be made, or feedback that needed to be given.
The peppering of calls in the middle of the morning then would roll into more formal meetings. This is the part that looks more like the brick and mortar, but we did everything, for the most part, over Zoom. At 8:30 or 9:00, we usually had our more formal scheduled calls. It was not unusual for us to have a three-hour C-team meeting where we are really bringing in our integrated thinking and not just focusing on our individual department obligations and execution, but where we could create value. This is really rewarding time because you’re not only sharing what you’re doing, but how it’s going to impact other functions and operations at the company. To do that function by function and very consistently see places where value could be added is super rewarding and a pretty normal thing to do when you’re in-house.
Then, you’ve got your team meetings. It’s not unusual for me to then roll into a set of calls, one-on-ones or a group meeting with my legal team, compliance team and communications. At Provention, I had the VP of communications report directly to me—that was a joint effort by the CEO and I to create a head at the organization that dealt with integrated corporate communications the whole way through. It’s not just SEC disclosures that need to be addressed and coordinated with IR, product communications and marketing, so that became my passion and love project at Provention. I dedicated on an average day a meeting or two to different communication efforts at the company not just for compliance purposes, but for strategic purposes.
Then—and this is hard when you’re at a biotech that’s moving a million miles per hour—early afternoon, I try to reserve some time to plan ahead and think, “These were my priorities this morning. Has anything changed? Do I continue with my checklist that I developed this morning, or have things changed so that I need to rejigger my afternoon and reprioritize, or move meetings around to address more urgent matters?” Usually, you have a couple of meetings where you are dealing with things that are getting escalated to you as an executive, whether that’s dispute resolution between employees, or employees who are stuck on something and don’t know where to go or don’t know how to interpret something. One popular one in an early launch of a product is dealing with materials or interpretation of SOPs and policies that are different between different departments and team members and making sure that you address those quickly.
Last but not least, I tend to touch base with my deputy general counsel—because they have their own priorities and world that they’re dealing with and that they’re trying to execute on—and my paralegal. Then, I really try to take some time to swoop back around with my fellow C-team members at the end of the day to ensure that nothing has come up that requires urgent attention or care. Just like I’m moving a million miles per hour, so is everyone else.
Then, I take some time for the family and try to work out on a good day, although not always. I usually pick back up with a few hours of catching up on email, and then a few calls resulting from that in the evening. It sounds like a lot, but it’s incredibly fun and rewarding, I promise.
Amanda Austin: It sounds like quite a day. Did your experience at Ropes prepare you for your in-house roles?
Heidy King-Jones: Absolutely. I always say you don’t really learn how to be a lawyer until you’re at work and working with lawyers. Law school’s great, but I really don’t think, on the corporate side, it prepares you for what practicing corporate law or being in-house counsel would be like, so a lot of the foundational skill sets that I use as in-house counsel absolutely work from things that I learned at Ropes. I was very lucky to work with really amazing attorneys, like David Fine—he had a couple of clients that I was fortunate to work with, and not just for deals but in between deals. I think that early lesson from David about learning the world of the people that you’re serving and understanding that, if you do that, you’ll be a better lawyer for them is something that I carry with me, and I bring to the table. Every table that I sit on I realize that I have a certain lens, and I realize that the person across the table from me, or at the table next to me, is trying to achieve something, and very quickly, I try to understand their world, their perception, and what their needs are, and see where I may be able to add value and problem-solve with them.
The other tenet is we’re all pretty smart, but no one is going to know everything. You need to stay very humble and aware of the things that you don’t know so that you can reach across the table and bring the right expert to the table. I think that’s a huge strength when you know your limitations and you know when to say, “You know what? I need to bring an employment lawyer in. I need to bring a licensing lawyer in, because I know enough to be dangerous, I know the business, I know enough to create a structure and framework, but there’s great value to bringing someone to the table who is doing that thing every day and is staying up to date.” Ropes & Gray, while I was there, was a very busy place. It wasn’t unusual for me to be on multiple deals at the same time, and it really prepared me for the fast pace of biotech, and not to be fazed by or shaken by the fact that I have four, five, six or more high-priority items that need to keep rolling or staying in the air. You really reach out to your resources because there’s an experience limitation, there’s a time limitation, and there’s a resource limitation to one person; and so, Amanda, being able to bring in someone like you, for example, to help negotiate, lead and take the pen as we provided our deal points, negotiation points and strategy, and adding your value to the negotiations, as you brought in the legal thinking and strategy, as well, is valuable.
Amanda Austin: One thing that is very notable is also the type of tone that you strike, as both a client and in-house as a colleague, which is just always collegial, always focused on the personal and the professional, and it makes everyone’s life so much easier and better no matter what hours you’re working. I wanted to make sure to share that, because you mentioned earlier that you hope you leave little pieces behind, and you absolutely do. Now that you have this really impressive experience and hindsight, do you have any advice for younger associates who are coming up the ranks and thinking about the next steps in their career?
Heidy King-Jones: Absolutely. Really take the time to be honest with yourself as to what you’re enjoying, what you’re good at, what stresses you, where you shine, and where things get a little bit tougher for you, and really be thoughtful about what it is that you would like to do. Collect the experiences and information for you to make decisions and create optionality for yourself. There are so many ways to be happy and successful. Talking to people who’ve taken different career paths, talking to different people within Ropes who’ve taken different approaches to getting to where they are, and being thoughtful about what you’re experiencing, but also where you want to go, is really important. That’s hard to do when you’re super busy—I think it’s hard to be that self-reflective and aware—but as busy as you are, especially at the beginning of your career, because there are so many options and so many different ways and paths that you can take, it’s important to at least once a month lift your head up and say, “What did I do? Who did I do it with? Was I really good at it? Did I enjoy it? Where are my gaps? Do I want to pursue filling those gaps because that’s going to lead me to a path that I want to go, or do I want to pivot and focus on the strength that I have because I really enjoy that, and therefore, those gaps are less important to that path?” Doing that as often as you can is important, not just early in your career, but also later. I try to do that still as often as possible, but I think the biggest mistake that we all could fall into is just working in no particular direction and not reflecting, because you then end up months or years later in a position where you do take a moment to reflect, and you may not be where you want to be. It’s never too late to change and pivot, but if you try to be self-aware as often as possible, ask yourself those questions and try to assess those things, you’ll have a more thoughtful and hopefully more fulfilling career path.
Amanda Austin: That’s great advice. For attorneys who are currently working at a law firm and considering moving in-house, are there any factors in particular that you would call out when they’re evaluating that move?
Heidy King-Jones: First, talk to someone who’s in-house, because life in-house is very different than life at a firm. Depending on the resources of the company that you’re at—the pipeline, the size of the organization—the experience in-house could be vastly different. Even within industries things can vary quite a bit. Making sure that you understand what it means to go in-house is something that you definitely want to do. I’ve seen a lot of people jump in-house before they had enough information, and they regret it, or people jump in-house way later than they had previously planned and said, “I wish I had done this sooner.” The biggest difference is you are not just a lawyer, but you are also a business partner when you’re doing things well in-house. You’ve got to live your budget. You have to be able to not just dole out advice but also operationalize it and guide your people to operationalize legal advice that you’re giving them, or that policy that you just put in place. It is a different focus—for some people, they really enjoy that; for other people, they may find that draining. If you’ve been reflecting on where your strengths and weaknesses are and what gives you, let’s call it “professional joy versus drain,” those are all things you want to think about seriously and consider as you think about a move in-house.
Amanda Austin: You mentioned David Fine, who was a mentor to so many of us. Any other mentors at Ropes who especially influenced your career?
Heidy King-Jones: There are people who mentored you who could be your mentors substantively, and David Fine was certainly one of those, but there were so many people who I think were mentors in multiple ways, whether it’s shaking the jitters of being at Ropes & Gray and walking through the doors and feeling different, and not quite sure if you’re supposed to be there, to people who mentored you through being a first-year associate in the different stages, and the things that you needed to bring to the table. Some of the people who I had moments with that really changed and helped shepherd me during my time at Ropes were David Fine, Mary Weber, Loretta Richard and Mike Beauvais—the list can go on and on. Mike Beauvais, who I never had the pleasure of working with, but became someone who I still am in touch with, would work late hours like I did, remind me that I needed to go home, but also had pearls of wisdom that he would drop. When you’re struggling with things like, “I have this family event, but I have these three deals—what do I do?” then talking to a partner like Mike about things like that and how to navigate it within Ropes makes a difference, and it makes those days easier. There’s Diane Patrick, who I think paired up with David to develop a leadership program for attorneys of color at Ropes & Gray. Amanda, there are people like you and alumni at Ropes who were a couple of years ahead of me who just really kept their watch over me or grabbed me and said, “You worked on this. Here are two or three things you could do better, so that next time you could bring more to the table.” Those are some of the people that really impacted and mentored me.
Amanda Austin: Thank you for walking through that. The last question is: What do you miss about Ropes?
Heidy King-Jones: There was a sense that these were my first years as an attorney and I felt that I was surrounded by just brilliant attorneys and people. I had amazing immediate access to those people—that was something that was really cool, and to be cherished and valued. I think the lawyer brain trust is one of the things that I miss the most. In biotech, if you do a little bit of what I do, which is to get brought in to create the legal department and functionalize and operationalize it, it can be lonely sometimes because you’re the only lawyer. That’s something that I definitely miss—being surrounded by the brain trust of amazing attorneys at Ropes.
Amanda Austin: We definitely miss you as well, but we’re lucky to still have you in the orbit. I just wanted to say thank you, Heidy, for joining us today, and sharing your thoughts and incredibly helpful advice.
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