(312) 399-2322

Imagine many childhood nights, cozied up to your grandmother, immersed in the drama of Perry Mason. With the support of his whip-smart legal secretary Della Street, Perry confronts the crying widow, the annoyed businessman or the loyal best friend in a crowded courtroom. And every time, he gets his witness-stand confession. “Yes, I killed him!” the witness exclaims, adding weak excuses to justify actions. The courtroom erupts in shock. Perry has cracked the case. He saves the day.

To Stacie Phillips, Perry Mason wasn’t just a TV show. Fond memories watching it with her grandmother — herself a single mother who had only an early-childhood education and who had worked for years as a paralegal to support her two children (one of whom was Stacie’s mom) — instilled the importance of the law in six-year-old Stacie.

Perry Mason — the legal advisor, the defender of the law, the justice seeker — was a life goal.

Stacie’s childhood was unique. She grew up in two states simultaneously. Her parents divorced when she was young. But they had a legal arrangement whereby Stacie spent all of the schoolyear with her mom in southern California. And she spent all summer and every holiday with her dad in northern Utah.

Despite the unconventional upbringing, Stacie excelled in school. But when it was time for college, she just couldn’t swing it financially. So, she decided to go straight to work — seeking and finding a company that would offer tuition assistance. That way, she could earn both an income and a college degree without going deep into debt. Not surprisingly, she pulled it off.

While working and going to school, Stacie climbed the ranks in her sales and marketing job. The many promotions she received over the years ultimately landed her in Ohio, where she began dating her now-husband.

Eventually, they moved to his hometown of Chicago. There, Stacie transferred to Northwestern University to finish up her undergraduate education, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in political science.

All along, Stacie’s plan to become a lawyer never wavered. Although it took her eight years to finish her undergraduate education, she decided to take on law school full time — despite having three young children at home.

Stacie chose DePaul University College of Law because most of the professors were practicing lawyers — and she wanted the best chance of getting actual and practical legal work as soon as possible.

Throughout law school, Stacie made valuable connections that would help shape her career. She volunteered at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago and in the Office of the General Counsel at Children’s Memorial (now Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago).

This led to a connection at Ungaretti & Harris (now Nixon Peabody), where Stacie — still in law school — landed a part-time law clerk job. At Ungaretti & Harris, Stacie moved from law clerk to summer associate and then ultimately landed a position after graduation as an associate.

Stacie has come a long way since her days at Ungaretti & Harris. Today, she serves as senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Curia, a contract research, development and manufacturing organization in the pharmaceutical industry.

We recently talked to Stacie about her unique journey to head up the legal and compliance department of a global company.

How did your career progress once you started working at Ungaretti & Harris?

I was at Ungaretti from 2005 to 2007, shorter than I expected. My practice was in a fledgling health law group, made up mostly of generalists and healthcare finance lawyers supporting healthcare institutions. HIPAA privacy and security rules were just getting sea legs. Health laws were beginning to take shape in a meaningful way. My practice was local and regional, involving mostly hospitals and health systems. I focused on regulatory and compliance, but also supported some M&A and litigation in the healthcare segment.

One day, I received a call from a recruiter at McDermott Will & Emery, which was — and still remains — a leading healthcare law firm. They had a large global healthcare practice, and they offered to hire me for a practice that was more national and global than the one in which I was practicing. I lateraled over and was there a couple of years with a practice in healthcare regulatory and compliance. I also started working a lot on M&A in the healthcare context, where I could lend regulatory and compliance advice, but also work on the transactional elements of the deals themselves.

How did you become interested in practicing law in-house? And how did you ultimately land your first in-house job with Baxter?

Baxter was one of my clients at McDermott. One of the people who worked at Baxter was a colleague of mine at Ungaretti & Harris. She called to tell me that there was an opening at Baxter and suggested I apply. I was only four years out of law school. I didn’t think I was ready. She felt confident that I was and convinced me to apply. So, I did, and I got the job. It was the most junior lawyer position in all of Baxter.

What kind of work were you doing at Baxter?

I had an expanded scope and increasing responsibility during my nine years at Baxter. I continued to perform a lot of transactional work, as well as regulatory and compliance work. My clients were not just the business and sales team. I also worked with quality, regulatory, pharmacovigilance, engineers and scientists in various disciplines, to name a few. I also supported work on Baxter’s public filings, government affairs and investor relations as I earned more senior roles. I also held several business roles outside of the legal department.

I am very grateful for my time at Baxter; my skills and abilities were recognized and leveraged, facilitating exponential learning. Indeed, in the nine years there, I moved from the most junior attorney role to a deputy general counsel role.

How did you win the GC opportunity with Curia, and why is it a great fit for you?

I really loved Baxter and had no plans to leave. But I knew I wanted to eventually be the GC of a company. At Baxter, I was in a deputy general counsel role, but Baxter’s GC was about my age and very good at his job. I assumed that the role would not open any time soon.

Then a recruiter started calling me. I ignored him for a time because I was still enjoying my role at Baxter and making significant contributions. Finally, I took his call. He said, “I’m so glad we’re talking. You’re being asked for by name by a CEO that needs a new GC.” I asked the recruiter how the CEO knew me. And he explained that he used to work at Baxter. And although our paths never crossed, the CEO was looking for a new GC and was asking for recommendations. My name kept coming up. The recruiter convinced me to meet the CEO. I met him for coffee, and we started talking with the intention of a short introduction, but we had a very engaging conversation and several hours later he offered me the job on the spot.

We saw eye-to-eye on everything. I could see through our conversation what he needed and where he wanted to take the company. And I envisioned how I could help — not just in legal and compliance, but also in the business. I thought this CEO would be a great partner.

The GC-CEO relationship is special. It needs to be built on trust and collaboration, and I thought that could be accomplished with him.

So, I made the tough decision to leave Baxter. I had built an amazing team and had what I viewed as a meteoric rise in a company of that scale, chalked full of talent. It’s tough to leave a place you’ve loved for nine years. But I took the leap and joined Curia as its general counsel and corporate secretary in August 2018.

At Curia, you co-founded the environmental, social and governance (ESG) program and the diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiative. What drives your strong sense of social responsibility?

The environment is very important to me. I grew up in two beautiful parts of our country, and I want to do my part to preserve it. (I actually minored in environmental science in college and at one point, I wanted to practice environmental law.)

As a pharmaceutical manufacturer, given the emissions involved in commercial-scale manufacturing, it’s important for us to be solid corporate citizens. We want to make sure we’re being good stewards of our environment and having a positive social impact on customers, employees and other stakeholders. Of course, good governance is essential for any company, and particularly a heavily-regulated health care company. It just made sense that we needed an ESG program. So, I teamed up with our CFO at the time to found the program. My deputy general counsel runs the program day-to-day with my oversight.

DE&I is a passion project. I also had co-founded Baxter’s DE&I with three other female leaders. We grew the women’s group from zero to thousands while I was there. We won the top award from the Healthcare Business Women’s Association (HBA) for our work on DE&I at Baxter. The experience of co-founding a movement like that — seeing the impact it was having on the lives and careers of women, and then being recognized by HBA — ignited my passion for this kind of work.

When I arrived at Curia, I realized that I had a new opportunity to leverage my experience and success to create something new and meaningful for women, underrepresented minorities and other groups. Given the work that we do in a STEM field, I view DE&I as essential to driving the most creative, rapid and effective solutions for our customers and patients — you achieve the best outcomes through diverse thinking in an environment where people are included and treated equitably.

What are some of your biggest priorities as GC?

Our business right now is in a state of transition and focused on growth. You can see in public information that our company was involved in the COVID-19 vaccine effort, which tapered off, leaving capacity open that we are actively working to fill. There also has been a slowdown in biotech funding, which is a source of customers for certain parts of our business.

One of my top priorities is our customer contracting. As GC, I am responsible for all our transactions worldwide. I have a group of attorneys who focus on negotiating, drafting and executing our contracts with our customers. It’s a top priority because the sooner we can contract, the sooner we can engage in the work our customers and patients count on us to perform.

Another priority is continuing to enhance our compliance program. We have built a robust compliance program over the past five-and-a-half years, and I’m proud of it. We conduct business all over the world and not all countries have the same focus on compliance. Or, to say it another way, some countries have a greater tolerance for concerning practices. We must be thoughtful and follow rigorous policies in order to deliver important medicines or medicinal ingredients to those countries. It’s important to remain in lockstep with the evolution of global regulations to assure that our compliance program is robust and serves as a competitive advantage.

My team is also a huge priority for me. It’s my job to make sure that the Curia legal and compliance department is the best place for them to work — challenging and sophisticated work that expands their skills, a collegial environment where collaboration occurs easily and regularly, meaningful contributions to the success of the company, and recognition for that performance. It’s also important that they’re being mentored and developed in preparation for the next phase of their careers. I have a team of approximately 25 people, mostly lawyers, but some paralegals too. It’s a small but mighty team, and I spend a fair amount of time communicating to assure strategic support, clarity, empowerment and strong relationships, among other goals.

What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer in general?

I love the complexity and the dynamic nature of being in-house, particularly in healthcare. There is very little repetition of issues, and the pace is intense. When you are outside counsel, you’re brought in for a discrete matter, you advise on it and then you never really know whether your advice generated the intended outcome and how the business was impacted.

When you are in-house, you live with the consequences of your advice every day — for good and for ill, and that experience refines you as an attorney — your critical thinking, problem-solving, strategies and the like. Being in-house forces a level of practical risk-based thinking and analysis that is not required elsewhere, and when you do that well, the business thrives while also remaining compliant. I love that — it’s very gratifying.

For me, healthcare is the place to be for attorneys who enjoy complexity and constant change. My goal as a lawyer is to make a difference somehow. I feel a close connection to the mission of healthcare. Pharmaceutical companies often come under fire in the media and in the court of public opinion, but we are discovering, developing and manufacturing lifesaving, life-altering products every day. Our work makes people’s lives better. I don’t know how it gets any more meaningful than that.

Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.

One day, I received a surprising call about five years into my nine-year career at Baxter. The call was from a well-respected vice president who convinced me to leave the legal department to assume responsibility for a large 12-month global business project involving considerable complexity and many business unknowns, with no job waiting for me at the end. During the call, she anticipated I would say that I wasn’t ready for such a weighty responsibility and executive visibility, and assured me that I was and that she would not take no for an answer. I am grateful to this day that she and the CEO saw attributes and skills in me that I did not yet see in myself, and were willing to take a risk on me to put me forward for this role.

That experience did so much for me — taught me many things, built up my confidence and provided an opportunity to do things I never knew I could do. To my surprise, I performed well in the role, and was returned to the legal department with a promotion to a deputy general counsel role. So, I consider her and the CEO to have played an important role in an era of my career development.

What’s your life like outside of work. What are some of your hobbies? Family?

All three of our kids are adults now and working professionals. In that way, life has changed. These days, I am the grandmother of two — a three-and-a-half-year-old and a 21-month-old. They are my heart’s delight! They live in the neighboring town, and we see them almost every week. Because I have had such a special relationship with my grandparents, it’s so meaningful to be able to devote time and effort towards their happiness.

My husband and I love to travel. We love to eat, and we like to take hiking trips in various parts of the world. I also love to read.

Life is pretty frenetic these days. I live and die by my calendar. I even schedule personal time as a way to make sure that I’m achieving a certain level of balance.

What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC someday?

First, say yes as much as possible. Even if you are convinced that you can’t do it. Even if you aren’t sure. There is so much you can learn from every experience. And all those learnings are transferable.

When I talked to other people about taking that business project at Baxter for a year, they said, “Why would you do that? You won’t do any lawyering and you will lose ground on your legal career for a year. That’s crazy.” But I took a leap of faith in myself, and was rewarded with a rich experience that allowed me to enhance my leadership skills, learn how to travel internationally with cultural astuteness, develop new ways of motivating people from different cultures, and many other skills that I have deployed since as a legal and compliance leader. That was a “dog year” — I lived seven years in one during that project. It was hard physically and mentally, but it was incredible. What if I hadn’t said yes to that opportunity?

My other piece of advice is to keep practicing balance. It’s never perfect. There are days, weeks and sometimes months when things are way out of balance, but it’s important to keep an eye on it and work to restore an equilibrium, so that you can reenergize and enjoy both your career and your personal life. When we have finished with this life, none of us will have wished we worked more.

Share This