I currently serve as general counsel of Eleusis, which is a psychedelic pharmaceutical company developing traditional psychedelics and related molecules for clinical trials with the ultimate goal of FDA approval. Our lead drug candidate is ELE-Psilo, a proprietary salt form of psilocin – the active metabolite of the psilocybin found in magic mushrooms – being developed for intravenous administration. The first target indications are major depressive disorder and adjacent psychiatric conditions. We’re also developing proprietary molecules for conditions beyond psychiatry, most notably in anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective applications.
My path to Eleusis was fortuitous. In law school, I participated in Yale’s San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project clinic and was mentored by a lawyer in the SF City Attorney’s office named Josh White. One day, after litigating at Quinn Emanuel in Los Angeles for eight years, I noticed on LinkedIn that Josh had founded the Fireside Project, a non-profit that operates the first national peer support line specifically devoted to helping people navigate psychedelic experiences. I called him just planning offer some pro bono help and a small donation, and he wound up connecting me to the general counsel opportunity at Eleusis. Here I am.
Traditional pharma’s value chain intersects with legal more than most industries. It works with regulated compounds, conducts clinical trials with human subjects and novel substances, protects its research investments through patents and regulatory exclusivity, and ultimately depends on complex administrative law approvals before it can commercialize anything.
Psychedelic pharmaceutical companies face all the same legal issues as traditional pharma, with the added twist that many of the drug candidates are Schedule 1 substances or potentially regulated under the Federal Analog Act. Imagine drafting a contract to transfer materials across international borders with all the normal commercial and import/expert considerations, but the underlying product to be shipped is a considerable quantity of GMP-grade LSD.
Psychedelic pharmaceutical companies also navigate the same securities law issues as any pre-revenue startup with material capital needs to prove out their product. To date, they fundraise on the strength of early-stage experimental results rather than historical financials, which has a number of attendant complexities.
Given nearly everything Eleusis does has a legal or regulatory component, little happens at the company without legal touching it at least once. The legal team is intimately involved in most operational and strategic decision-making. I suspect that’s unusual in industries with more traditional or less-regulated products, and it’s both the joy and the strain of this position.
I’m blessed to have Marisa Joss as a Deputy and Mary Brickman as a paralegal. Legal questions are so intertwined with our value chain that the company’s legal needs outstrip the typical headcount for a legal department at our stage of funding. Each member of our team finds themselves performing functions beyond their titles and job descriptions, and Marisa and Mary do so with relish, which makes the team work.
I pivoted from years of fulfilling litigation. I was on the team for the largest lawsuit in the world repeatedly, took cases to trial in Dubai and elsewhere, defended the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when it removed Roman Polanski from its membership, and so forth. I have great war stories. I was quite comfortable on a well-respected path, and it was disorienting to shift and suddenly feel like a first-year associate again – every question was new to me.
Lawyers tend to build identities around their specialization, around the particular thing they do as distinct from what their law school classmates do. But their skills are far broader and more adaptable than they acknowledge when in that reference frame. If you’ve arrived at a point where you’re no longer growing where you’re planted, it’s likely time to repot yourself. It may be uncomfortable, but think about what you’ve learned in the last five years – the same period of time will pass repeatedly in your career. Aim to grow at least the same amount every five years.
I try not to anticipate the next phase of my career. If you’d told me as a third-year associate that I’d be the general counsel of a psychedelic pharmaceutical company in five years, I would have been flabbergasted, and if I’d sat around projecting my career out over the decades at that point, I would have been wrong about nearly everything. I have little reason to think I’d be any better at that exercise today, so I don’t indulge it much. I’m open to any transition that speaks to me when it arrives on my doorstep, but I don’t try to guess what it will be today.
Three things. First, keep an eye on your story – how you’d pitch yourself – at each stage of your career. It’s not just law school and now I’m a lawyer until I retire. Every experience and position is another element to weave into a pitch you’ll one day give about yourself to a prospective employer. If what you’re doing isn’t teaching you something that you can take with you and use on the next leg of your journey, even if that’s in the same position, ask yourself why you’re still doing it.
Obviously, we all have to grind sometimes – that’s law, but you should have an affirmative story for yourself about what a particular period of grind is doing for you, how it’s earning you stripes that will open another door you want to walk through someday. The grind is displacing something, whether it’s your physical health or the quality of your attention to people you dearly love or both. You should do it only because you’ve accounted for that cost and believe it’s worth it, not from inertia or lack of reflection on what you actually want out of a life in the law.
Second, stay connected to communities of lawyers outside of your current position. It’s tough because practicing places demands on your time that make the prospect of voluntarily adding more law to your life unpleasant. It is worth it.
I found my current position by reaching out to a lawyer I had not worked with in nearly a decade with no particular intention other than being friendly. Co-founding the California Psychedelic Bar Association has introduced me to fellow travelers in practicing that make the possibilities for my career feel a great deal more expansive than they feel sitting at a desk drafting. And of course, join TechGC. I still regularly have coffee with a pair of lawyers who just happened to be in my first breakout room at my first TechGC event.
Finally, keep track of the things you wish somebody had told you at each step of your career, and take the time to mentor younger lawyers. The most satisfying moments reflecting on my career have come when its yielded insights that helped somebody else thrive. That’s a bit Zen for legal industry career advice, but you did click on a profile for the general counsel of a psychedelic pharmaceutical company. Good luck.