Episode 3: Don Bunnin - The Department of 'How Can I Help You?'
In this episode, Phil Rowley connects with Don Bunnin, who is vice president, Medical Aesthetics & Litigation for Allergan. Don joined Allergan in 2010 as litigation counsel and over the past decade has become a senior member of the company’s corporate legal department. He reflects on the cultures he’s experienced throughout his career and provides insights into the evolving regulatory landscape of healthcare. He also describes how the legal department is moving past its reputation as the "department of no."
S1 00:07 Welcome to Intelligence That Works. I'm Phil Rowley, executive director and chief revenue officer of global consulting firm BRG. Intelligence That Works is more than the name of this podcast. It's what makes BRG tick. We're questioners, challengers, even truth seekers, committed to uncovering the substance beneath the surface of the biggest issues and challenges facing business leaders today. We meet some innovative individuals along the way, and in each episode, I'll speak with one of them about change, leadership, and the possibilities that lie ahead. This podcast, like BRG itself, is about harnessing our collective expertise to deliver inspired insights and practical strategies that help organizations stay ahead of what's next.
In this episode, I'm excited to be speaking with Don Bunnin, vice president, Medical Aesthetics and Litigation, at Allergan. I'm here in my Chicago office. Don's in his office in Irvine [California]. Don, thank you so much for speaking with me today.
S2 01:19 You're welcome, Phil. I'm honored to be here and very excited for the discussion.
S1 01:23 What can you say, as you've moved from different firms and then, ultimately, Allergan, about culture and leadership? Was it important that there was a mentor or that you had a sponsor? Just give us a little bit on some of those moves in between the law firms.
S2 01:37 Yeah. I think it's important, first and foremost: when I was looking at law firms, or coming to Allergan, and when I talked to other folks about opportunities, whether it's working with them as outside counsel or experts or whatever, I think it's the personal aspect and the relationship that you have with the people that really will help you figure out a way to find a successful outcome. Whether it's on a case, or your job, or some sort of retention, you have to have that personal relationship with someone.
And I think that when you're working with folks in a law firm, your ability to succeed, in large part, is based on what relationships you have. At the same time, you have to take control of leading yourself, leading your career, leading your personal life, your family life, and not leave it to someone else to help you develop the skills you need in your office, in the courtroom, with the expert, developing clients, whatever the case may be.
S1 02:37 One of the things that you've shared with me is because healthcare is always evolving, as is regulation, that you're always learning something new. Can you share with the audience something recently that you learned or sort of a pattern on how you learn?
S2 02:51 Yeah. In the healthcare space, the laws and regulations are changing, but it's also broader than that. So for example, there's a new privacy law in California that's going to take effect in 2020 and that has really caused a lot of analysis about, how does that apply to our business? Does it just apply within California? What if we have people here in California, but they're communicating with someone outside of California? etc.
So a change in a law that isn't necessarily aimed at healthcare has a big impact on us, right? That's just one example.
Another example was, recently, there was discussion about requiring advertisements for pharmaceuticals on television that you would have to say what the list price of the drug was in the commercial. Again, it's a new law or regulation in healthcare where it's not that it came out of the blue, but it's not something that you'd necessarily been working on for a long period of time. So it may not necessarily be a new law that you have to learn, but rather, I need to not learn about this product. I need to learn its label, what its indications are, what it's risks are, and then how do I take that new product and plug it into the regulatory environment that we already have, or the legal environment, and things like that. So that way, you're constantly sort of taking the evolution of Allergan, the healthcare company, and applying it to a current set of laws, and then also laws as they change.
S1 04:24 Wow. Yeah, all of those are impactful. So then Don, turning to the law department, if you will: the general counsel's office, it really has transformed over the last decade. And I'm going to generalize, somewhat, of a cost center, just a legal requirement, and litigation costs, and is something now that is very much a value-add, and looking at, what's the overall contribution? How would you manage that, or anything in particular that was more challenging?
S2 04:54 Well, when I first joined Allergan, it was instilled in me repeatedly that the legal department cannot be the Department of No. When I was doing litigation in the healthcare space, you're a defendant, perhaps not—if you're the patent case or something like that, you're not driving business. You're trying to sort of address concerns that have been raised.
However, a couple of years ago, when I transitioned into a commercial role, supporting the business on their everyday legal needs, I saw it very differently from the litigation role in that the commercial lawyer is a business partner. You get invited into those conversations early. They give you full details and full information, so that way, you can give them the advice that they need. And it's not the Department of No. It's the Department of, "How can I help you reach your business goals?" Right? And that's what the good commercial lawyers do. Sometimes the answer is, "No, you can't do that," for this reason or that reason. But good commercial lawyers, when they say no, they have ideas in the back of their mind that they can share, like, "You can't do that, but would this work or would that work? Or how about going down this other area, because maybe that helps you achieve your goal."
And I think that it's in those ways that you become a value-add. You're not only keeping, let's say, the business out of trouble or out of litigation, but you're helping them see different paths that maybe they just didn't consider at the time. So I think that is the difference. I think you see more GCs in the C-suite having discussions more as a counselor than just as a legal, "Here's what the law says. Yes, you can do it. No, you can't." You're seen more and more as an idea person to help navigate your way to the goal.
S1 06:41 I want to build on that, follow up a little bit. I love that instilled in you that you're not the Office of No. And there has been quite a bit written recently around the end of the authoritative dictator as the CEO, maybe even the general counsel, and much more of a collaboration. Are there other sort of leadership-style points that you've noted or something you say, "Hey, this really works"?
S2 07:04 Yeah. I like to think whether—I think this could apply to a general counsel, a CEO, a head of marketing, whatever. And you know I'm a big sports fan, so I think of this as a sports analogy. I think of it as a head coach in the NFL, let's say, like a Bill Walsh, right? As many Super Bowls as Bill Walsh won, he's often talked more about all of the coaches under him that became head coaches, right? Like Mike Holmgren, and Andy Reid, and I think Jon Gruden, as some examples.
And I think that's the way that leadership is, in some ways, evolving in that, "I'm not just going to be the authoritarian here, making all decisions and knowing all. I'm going to develop people and their skills so that way they grow and develop in a way where they can go be a head coach." So a very good general counsel can develop his team so at some point, members of his team can then go off and be their own general counsel, right?
Or even if you're not a general counsel. Let's say you're the head lawyer for a business unit. You have lawyers who are on the front lines, working with the brands. Are you developing those people so then they can go off and run business units?
And I think people are getting more mindful of the talent development under them, and that's something that you're seeing more and more today, that, "Let's build people up, give them more responsibility, let them develop." It makes the company better, it makes the businesses better, if you can then rely on folks that are underneath you or working for you.
The other thing that I think works well, and I've learned this from our general counsel here: I think leaders let their team members and others speak first and speak fully.
A lot of times when we have team calls or team meetings, our general counsel is the last one to speak. I think he wants to hear everyone's opinions, and their views, and the facts as they see them. And then, after that, he asks questions, or imposes what he thinks the right course of action is.
The other thing that I think is important for leaders, CEOs, GCs, an in-house lawyer working with outside counsel is to have humility, in that your ideas may not always be the right ones. So a lot of times, outside counsel, they want to be deferential and very polite, but the lawyers here at Allergan know not all of our jokes are funny. Even though a lot of people laugh at them, they're not always funny, just like not all of our ideas are good. So I try to build relationships with the people I manage, whether it's internally or externally, to say to them like, "You can tell me when I'm wrong. You can tell me when my ideas are bad. Or even if they're not bad, if you just have a better idea, please tell me that, because that's how we're going to get to the best possible outcome." And I think really good leaders create an environment where people can express not only differing views, but the view that the leader is wrong.
S1 10:06 Great overall counsel for all of us in leadership roles. Let me ask a difficult question. How do you deliver the tough message? Let's say it's outside counsel and you're not happy with what they're doing. Are you kind of planning, "Hey, I still may need them on something else," or no, just quick, "You're out. I have a replacement"? Walk us through the downside. The leaders, we don't often talk about that.
S2 10:29 Yeah, that is a tough one. Fortunately, I've only had to experience that a limited number of times. I've been at Allergan eight years, so probably have retained hundreds, if not a thousand or more, outside counsel. And for the most part, have made a lot of good hires. In fact, it's only been in three instances where I've had to terminate a firm and bring on someone new. That's a drastic move, and it's extremely disruptive. It adds costs. It adds a lot of inefficiencies. It's very disruptive to our business partners in that they're going to have repeat calls, repeat meetings, and they'll be taken away from their day jobs. Whether it's R&D, or selling, or HR, whatever it is, their day job is in litigation, so it's very disruptive to them. It's also very costly in that, now, I have to sort of pay to get folks up to speed when I've already maybe had a firm in place for a couple of years.
Those are very difficult situations. They only come after a lot of internal discussions, likely, a lot of external discussions with the firm to address your concerns, and give them a second, perhaps, third chance to fix whatever you think the issues are.
But when you have to do it, you have to do it. And the key is to be direct with them.
I think one of most important things that a good leader does is they build trust. Whether it's with outside counsel, whether it's with your team or other colleagues, you have to build that trust. So that way, it's a two-way street. It's a two-way discussion. Because I can't have an outside firm feel uncomfortable telling me bad news. Whether that bad news is the facts aren't very good for you, the law is not on your side, you need to settle this case, or whatever it is, I can't just have a yes-firm that only tells me, "Oh, your case is great. You should try this. You're definitely going to win."
And it's only through trust and a confident relationship that you're going to have the proper advice from outside counsel, and that then works the other way, right? If I have trust in them, I can feel comfortable calling—whether it's the relationship partner, or their senior partner, or their senior associate—and say, "Here's my issue. I'm having a problem with so-and-so because they don't respond to my emails, or the work product they're sending doesn't answer the questions that I have." But I need to know that I can pick up the phone and say to them whatever I need to say to address the concerns that I have, and I want them to feel the same.
What I learned early, and one of the first lessons that I got when I joined Allergan, was building that trust and having that relationship with outside counsel will get you better legal advice, will get you better legal support in that they're a little bit more excited to work for Allergan if you're a good client, right? That's not to say that they're not working hard for everyone, but you want the lawyers working for you to be excited to work on your case. You want the top talent at the firms to say, "Hey, I heard client so-and-so is really great to work with. How do I get one of those cases?" So you're getting their best efforts, you're getting their best people, and that comes with treating them well and building a trusting relationship.
S1 13:49 Well said, Don. Let me close on leadership and mentoring. You've mentioned certain partners at firms. You've mentioned the general counsel. As sort of a final note, as a mentor, what do you try to make sure that you do?
S2 14:03 First and foremost, if I'm going to lead someone, I have to know where they want to go. If you were an army general, let's say, you would know where you were going to take your platoon or your battalion, right? And you would help them get there. Same goes for football coaches. If my goal is to win the game, I have to score points. So I know I got to have a plan to get my quarterback, my offensive line, my running backs, there.
Same goes if you're an in-house lawyer and you have a team of lawyers that report to you. I can't help them achieve their career goals or their goals at Allergan unless I have that conversation with them and I say, "What is it that you would like out of your career here at Allergan or in general?"
And about a year and a half ago, when I transitioned into a medical aesthetics role, I took over responsibility for managing three lawyers, and that was the first thing that I did with each of them. I said, "Hey, let's have a conversation about your career and what you want out of it." So that way, I could understand.
And they tell me, "I'd really like to take on an additional brand. I'd love to help support BOTOX Cosmetic. It's a great brand." Or, "I'd really like to manage some people. I haven't done that before."
The other thing is it's not a one-and-done conversation. I did that in April of 2018 when I took this over, but I do it every three months. So that way, I can constantly check in with them: "Have your goals changed? Do you think that there's a new opportunity that I wasn't aware of?" So that way, we can have that conversation.
That's the only way for me to help them develop and achieve their goals. Because the way that I look at it is, they're spending a lot of time thinking about their career and their development, just like I am about myself, and just like you are, Phil, but your manager isn't necessarily doing that, right? They're not thinking about you. So you need to communicate that to them.
And it goes back to what I said earlier of taking control of your career. And I was fortunate when I started at Allergan to have a manager who would listen to me. And I constantly came to him and said, "Hey, I'd like to try this." Or, "I'd really like to handle that case. I haven't done an employment case before or an antitrust case." And he was always open to listening, and I think that's an important thing for a mentor as well. He didn't always say yes, but he said yes a lot of the time. And I was okay with the fact that he didn't always say yes, but he listened to me, and he thought about it, and over time, the yeses became more common, and my experience and scope of abilities very much expanded.
So as a leader, you have to listen to the people that you're working with, hear them out, and give them opportunities. And that's really how I developed at Allergan, was having people as leaders and mentors that kept giving me opportunities, but I made sure that I was knocking on their door to get those. And I think that that's sort of the two-way balance here, of: I have to take charge of my own career as an individual, but as a leader or a mentor, I have to take some responsibility for helping the people I work with develop and reach their goals.
S1 17:18 Don, great, great model to both replicate and to emulate. A few takeaways on a personal note. What you highlighted, I think being thoughtful and taking charge of your career, great counsel, being passionate, building trust, the importance of developing talent, and then this last—although, it ties back to an earlier answer, listening, and maybe as leaders, we should always be the last to speak.
Really great, Don. Thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.
S2 17:46 You're welcome, Phil. Thank you for having me.
S1 17:50 This podcast is brought to you by BRG. You can find episodes wherever you get your podcast or on our website, thinkbrg.com. And please don't forget to give us a review on iTunes. I'm Phil Rowley. Thanks for listening. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, position, or policy of BRG, its employees, or affiliates.