Litigator, Manager, and Mentor: Linda Willett
Linda Willett, vice president and deputy general counsel of Bristol-Myers Squibb’s legal division, is a role model not only for her strong legal work and mentorship, but for anyone who’s ever dreamed of starting a new career. Until she was 39, Willett was a biochemist who did pharmaceutical research and product development for American Cyanimid. But when her employer went through a reorganization and divestiture, Willett took the opportunity to pursue her life-long interest in law.
During her first year of law school, she obtained an internship with U.S. District Court Judge John Bissell.
“It gave me the opportunity to observe the courtroom in action, and I became interested in litigation,” Willett said.
After law school, she took a position at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals as a commercial attorney for their international law group.
“I started working for Dan Cronin, and during our discussions, I told him about my interest in litigation, and he encouraged me to move in that direction.”
This led Willett to look for a law firm where she could learn litigation.
“I wanted a small firm where my work would have an impact,” she said, “but also one that was significant enough that I could get good training.”
She landed a position with McCarter & English, among whose partners was John McGoldrick, whom she respected for his DES litigation (diesthylstilbestrol, a drug known to cause abnormalities in the offspring of female users).
“It was the right thing to do for me,” she said. “The training offered by them was outstanding.”
Willett became a partner after three years. She also became a litigator, but not the traditional litigator who spent most of her time in the courtroom. When McCarter & English took Bristol-Myers Squibb as a client in defense against the mass tort claims involving breast implantation, Willett was selected to manage the case.
Her science background, management skills, and knowledge of litigation enabled her to successfully manage what became one of the largest mass tort litigations in history. Since then, a breast implant settlement program has been put into place, and litigation is ongoing. This success led her to greater responsibilities as a vice-president for Bristol- Myers Squibb.
Willett has not only achieved great personal success, but she has been a leader in helping others achieve as well. She has been in the forefront of developing programs for new lawyers and establishing diversity in the workplace. She knows there are barriers for women and minorities, but doesn’t believe in dwelling on them.
“You cannot let barriers overcome your goals,” she said. “You have to have an effective means of dealing with them.”
Any workforce, she believes, is more effective if it’s diverse because it allows the diversity of thinking that makes a company more effective, especially in the global arena.
In her managerial role at Bristol-Myers Squibb, she established an intern program that has grown from one intern to seven. In addition to giving its interns the best training possible, Bristol-Myers Squibb also plays an active role in getting their interns associate positions with the law firms that work for the company.
Litigator, manager, and mentor, Willett has been a leader every step along the way.
Tom Calarco is a freelance writer from Schenectady, N.Y. His book The Outpost to Freedom, a History of the Underground Railroad in Upstate New York, is set for publication in 2003.
From the March/April 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®