Life sciences law: area of practice

Life sciences law involves giving companies legal advice on their food, drug, cosmetic and health-related products.

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You don’t necessarily need to be a scientist but you do need good analytical skills and attention to detail.

There is a broad array of contentious work in this sector as we cover anything with a public law angle to it; for example, judicial reviews against regulatory authorities such as the European Medicines Agency or the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), who are the EU and UK regulators for medicines. Contentious work can also be with the EU Commission since it is responsible for authorising medicines for use across the EU and also approving so-called ‘health claims’ on foods. We also do a lot of work in public procurement given that the main purchaser of medicines and medical devices is the National Health Service, which is a public organisation.

The non-contentious side involves significant advisory work with client queries that are diverse and complex. There is also a significant amount of transactional support work given the highly regulated nature of our clients.

In the regulatory practice you will often be handling a number of smaller projects over time, which can mean four or five matters per day on average and again there is a good mix of litigation, transaction or advisory work.

Some cases can take two or three years – not including appeal – such as our case against the European Medicines Agency in the General Court of the EU in Luxembourg on clinical trial transparency issues. Transactions are more concentrated and intense, perhaps lasting a couple of months. Most advisory work lasts a week or two.

Life sciences solicitors are 'manageably busy'

In general, the team for a particular matter will consist of a partner, an associate and a trainee, although there is sometimes the need for more than one associate. Our work is mostly office-based with some out-of-office meetings and occasional international
travel. Clients tend to be major pharmaceutical companies, and large food and cosmetic brands.

Life sciences is a consistently busy area but, generally speaking, it is manageable from a work/life perspective; it does not routinely involve client emergencies late in the evening or over the weekend (although it can and does happen occasionally) so we tend to have a busy working week and free weekends. The daily hours are similar to any other busy law firm that has clients who expect a service around the clock; you will usually work a full day in order to fill your clients’ needs but people regularly leave the firm at 6.00 pm once their work is finished. There is no unnecessary hanging around and there is also the option to pick up work from home in the evenings if needed.

For me, the best aspect of working in life sciences is being able to work closely with a range of clients from different industries every day. On any given day I could be working on a major food/beverage recall in Europe, a tender dispute in the UK, an EU Court of Justice case on a medical device and a cosmetic ingredient concern in the context of an acquisition. As a solicitor advocate, I also do my own advocacy, which is another part of my job that I really enjoy. I have made direct written and oral submissions all the way to the Supreme Court in the UK and also the General Court of the EU in Luxembourg. The area is challenging as it can be quite technical; you don’t necessarily need to be a scientist but you do need good analytical skills and attention to detail.

How recession-proof is life sciences law?

The past few years have been incredibly busy in this area and it seems to be getting more so, particularly as the area in which we practise is now relevant not just for traditional drug companies but also technology companies looking to engage with digital health and digital medicine. As a result, our client base has expanded significantly, which also fits well with our IT/technology practice.

What sort of work do life sciences trainees do?

Trainees get involved with drafting legal submissions, drafting memoranda and analysing the law. Trainees’ views and opinions on pieces of law are really valued and, as long as your supervisor is comfortable with the level of responsibility, you can take the lead on matters.

Types of law practised

  • Regulatory.
  • Public and administrative.
  • Data privacy.
  • Competition law

Good life sciences solicitors have…

  • The ability to turn abstract concepts into practical recommendations.
  • Analytical brainpower.
  • Strong skills in written work for drafting.
  • Good judgement and common sense.

BRIAN KELLY is a partner in the life sciences regulatory practice of COVINGTON & BURLING LLP . He graduated with a degree in neuroscience from the University of Sheffield in 2000.

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