Updated: Aug 8, 2022
Jonathan Cullen serves as Canadian Vice President & General Counsel & France-Canada Cluster Lead at Pfizer, a leading pharmaceutical organization.
He “always wanted to be a lawyer, just not a boring one. He has over 16 years of legal & management experience in healthcare leading teams in Canada & Europe. His passions are the legal profession & developing people. He is also a struggling special needs dad.
Even as a kid, he always loved unlocking puzzles, telling stories & connecting ideas.
Now he gets to help clients solve business puzzles & help lawyers and other people use their strengths to create rewarding careers.
Jonathan is a learner & a big reader. His hero is Lincoln “My mind is like a piece of steel. Very hard to scratch anything on it and almost impossible after to rub it out”. He uses lessons from history & management to design legal advice, grow people & bridge ideas.
He believes that as a legal profession, we should:
build learning organizations
fight injustice, racism & sexism
rebuild our relationship with society as community leaders with honesty & compassion
not take ourselves so seriously: laughing is legal
And as lawyers, we should:
be people first, legal advisors second
use principles, not narrow impractical advice
have courage as a lone voice, take smart, bold risks
do what is right, not just what is legal
Please tell me a little bit about your background and how that has informed how you work in your current role.
I have a psychology, science and litigation background. All of these elements have shaped my approach to my current role I believe in the human aspect of legal advice first. We advise people, not faceless organizations. Even if the legal problems presented to us feel technical and business driven, behind them there are ideas, questions and aspirations driven by people and recognizing that is the first step towards understanding how to better serve your organization and its purpose. In my organization’s case, Pfizer’s purpose is breakthroughs that change patients’ lives. Knowing that, knowing that my colleagues are looking to the legal team for advice through that prism, is essential to giving effective, practical and sustainable advice. The science and litigation experiences have probably grounded me in reality. How to construct a plan to meet a goal. How to pressure test assumptions. How to both accept things as they are today and develop movement towards something different tomorrow, through the power of communication, evidence-based influence and principle-based advice that doesn’t just gift wrap single-use answers for clients but develops the people in your organization to think and increases its overall value.
As a general counsel, what are some misconceptions that you believe individuals have about that role and what you do?
One of the misconceptions about any leadership role, including that of a general counsel, is the underestimation of how much is done through others.
Creating a large identify that is bigger than your team, your organization and its purpose is dangerous. Judging the day by its immediate results is short sighted. Leading under assumption is fatal.
Instead, in my view, general counsel should create an environment that is bigger than themselves and indeed bigger than others around them. People buy into something that is bigger than them. Keep your identify in this broader construct, small. We tend to see ourselves by our intention and we see others based on their actions. Try to reverse that and seek out the intention of others and take a close look at your own actions, how they are perceived and whether you’re demonstrating the courage to live by your own and your organization’s convictions. Developing others is a natural bulwark against these risks. If you judge each day not by the harvest you reap by but the seeds you plant, you’ll naturally develop your team members, other colleagues in your organization, your fellow management members, and members of the profession outside your organization. Your life gets larger when you make yourself smaller in it.
Once you focus on others, they naturally develop you and your ability to see issues very broadly and to start to see the big picture more quickly. Seeing more and seeing before others – that is essential for the general counsel role. If you are too involved in the specifics of the day to day you’ll never be able to see in that way and your organization will suffer as a result. So you have to find the right balance of being close enough to the ground to understand the fundamentals of what is happening and also giving yourself space and time to see snippets of what a future might look like.
What are your thoughts on legal innovation? Do you try to innovate in your role?
It is a mistake to think that if things are going well, don’t change, stay the course and continue your success. Our organizations, especially ones who thrive on innovation, research and development, are constantly changing. If an organization’s legal advisors do not change at the same rate or faster, we actually appear to be stagnant or regressing. So not only is innovation critical, not only is change essential, but we must change when things are going well – which is scary. Creative people believe there is always an answer and flexible people know there is more than one answer.
Keeping an open mind to possibility is essential. “Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open.” – I never would have thought such an insightful quote would come from a Scotch whisky distiller, but I’m constantly amazed by the wisdom in the nooks and crannies of the world. If we look for “legal” innovation only in spaces dominated by lawyers we engage in an elaborate exercise in navel-gazing. Having a vision for your organization means both being relentless in the chase but being open to ideas from diverse sources.
Do you use any legal technology tools in your work? Why and how or why not?
Absolutely. But “technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master”. Christian Lous Lange Norwegian historian, teacher, and political scientist said this more than 100 years ago. I believe it is more impactful to deeply reflect on the problem at hand, the possibilities that lie in your aspirations and your vision of what the future could look like. In our team, we try not to seek out the shiniest, newest technological tool and look for a problem to apply it to. Instead, we try to determine where we want to go, look at the barriers to that goal, plan out how to overcome those barriers and adjust as we proceed. Technology may or may not have a place in each of those steps. For example, my organization has had a significant drive towards process simplicity. One process we targeted for simplification was electronic signatures. It met our long term objectives of giving the business faster turn-around times, which we measured, and reduced human time “on deck”. We have equally rejected technological solutions that don’t meet our criteria.
How has your work changed since the pandemic began? Are there any things you are considering changing permanently as a result of the pandemic?
I think if you’re in a service industry, like lawyers, and your work has not changed as a result of the pandemic, you’re in for a surprise. Most people are more comfortable with old problems than new solutions, but in this case, the environment has changed so quickly that progress on innovative service delivery models, remote working, and reorienting towards new client needs is shifting at tremendous speed. Technology is on obvious example. But under that, perhaps more fundamentally, the core values of human connectivity, empathy and transparency are in their highest demand. No leader and no legal department is succeeding right now without a better understanding of the difficulty clients and organizations are facing. There will be many technological solutions that will come out of this period. Some will fizzle out. I’ll welcome and embrace those that stand the test and continue. But I believe the transcendent change that needs to be embraced by the legal profession both as a result of the pandemic and the current awakening to social injustice, is a return to humanity in law. The recognition that people cannot be worked into the ground like simple assets. The acknowledgement that the profession needs to not just “do better” but reclaim some of our leadership in social justice issues. The appreciation that our people have aspirations and hopes outside of work and while it may not be our place to support those, you can significantly enrich the joy in your colleagues’ lives by removing barriers to their happiness. That is not inconsistent with the legal profession and the role of an organization. Those are changes that I do not believe employees and young lawyers especially will allow to be undone. Like the Spanish proverb says, there are no roads, roads are made by walking. We’re walking now!