Nawel Bailey Rojkjaer / IP Lawyer fighting for better access to affordable medicines

Nawel Rojkjaer is the former Head of International Affairs and Trade Policy at one of the biggest generic pharmaceutical companies. Nawel has worked to increase the generic industry’s engagement on trade policy at a global level, including through international trade associations. She has worked with numerous NGO's on access to medicines, and advocated intensely to protect patient access in various trade agreements, including CETA and TPP. She will be starting a similar job in the fall heading up government relations for a generic pharmaceutical company in Iceland. She is a graduate of McGill Law with a focus on Intellectual Property, and worked as an IP litigator in Toronto in the pharmaceutical sector for years, before moving into IP policy and government relations. 

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Let's start with the basics. Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?

Definitely yes - My interests always lay in history, government, law, and politics, and I had the hopes of going to law school since at least high school. My parents are career diplomats - these topics were hashed out often in our family - and I also had an inspiring and talented history teacher who encouraged this interest. 

What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?

I don’t know why it came together the way it did, but against all odds, it was an intellectual property class that hooked my interest (I am not so blinkered as to think IP is interesting to most. Or any). It wasn't even the “sexier” copyright or trademark issues, but plain old patents.  I wanted to understand the role that patents played in health care and access to medicines.  I began to focus in on the questions of how does a society fund research, encourage innovation, but ensure that patients have access to privately developed medicines through what we feel is essentially a public right to health. 

What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?

Enforcement of patent rights on HIV/AIDS medicines during the AIDS epidemic made my blood boil. I may have blocked out the classes which made me snooze? It could be postpartum brain but I’m having trouble even remembering the dull classes. The highlights are what stand out. Oh, and med students taking all the library carrels in the law library during exams was pretty annoying. 

What does a day in your life look like? Give us the rundown!

Well right now I am on maternity leave, so my day is like: don’t sleep ever, hang out with my baby, and get my 3 other kids settled in Iceland, where we moved 6 months ago. I have 4 kids under the age of 6 - you don’t want to know what a day in my life looks like. I don’t even want to know what a day in my life looks like.

This fall I am starting a new job heading up government relations for a company making generic pharmaceuticals in Iceland. It’s hard to say what my day there will look like, but I expect a big part of it is going to be figuring out how we get cheap medicines to the patients who need them most; working with industry associations in different regions; reaching out to NGOs to support access efforts, and working with governments and international institutions to make sure Big Pharma are not the only ones at the table when health and trade policy are being discussed and negotiated. Somehow, I am going to try to do this job, and still be present with my kids - I will be working in an extremely flexible, family-friendly work environment, with gender parity and progressive policies and attitudes, and this, I am certain, will make the difference. 

What did the journey from big law to your lawfully uncommon career look like?

I applied to all the big law jobs, interviewed with them, and even got offers - but from the outset, it didn’t seem like a good fit for me. I was drawn instead to a brand new boutique litigation firm that sort of billed itself (no pun intended!) as the opposite of a big law firm. I felt like I would get a lot of hands on experience, room to act on personal interests, and space to be myself. The firm at that time was also working squarely in my field of interest. It had a growing government relations practice, and I spent several years shuttling back and forth to DC, working on legislation, meeting with Congress and other USG bodies, and getting a taste for policy. Our clients were generic pharmaceutical companies and the laws and policies we worked on all had the aim of curtailing Big Pharma monopolies or measures which delayed access to generic medicines. We also started non-profit work on access to medicines - getting involved in trying to reform the (now totally failed) compulsory licensing regime in Canada, and working with the Ghanaian government on its patent laws. After several years, one of our clients approached me to take over their international relations work, and keen to leave jurisdictional work and go full time into international policy, I accepted. That led to a few international moves, a big love story, several kids, and a dream job.

How did you make the jump from the boutique firm into access to medicines? At what point did you pivot? Or was it more of a gradual shift?

I don't know that there was a pivot or a change of direction even. It was a natural progression of the work I was doing for generic pharmaceutical companies. From fighting the patent infringement cases, to arguing for certain legal reforms to address patent monopoly abuses, to realizing that generic drug companies can and should be playing an important role in policy making around IPRs and health- and they weren't. Big Pharma was of course and had been for decades, and NGOs were in the fight too- but generic companies- the actual suppliers of the low cost medicines, had largely stayed out of the  arena, especially as it relates to trade law and policy. That made no sense to me as they should be the natural allies of social welfare states, patients and NGOs. 

How has your transsytemic legal education helped you while working these different jobs in different countries?

The truth is I'm not sure I thought a lot about the trans systemic model once I left law school, but I will say that the approach in general encourages its students to look at fundamental principles- which has been valuable

Do you still see law all around you?

My husband thinks I do! I think going to law school creates a paradigm for viewing the world and it can be difficult to step out of that and try to understand situations, motivations, consequences in non-legal terms. I am getting much better at this now, but am often surprised by how deeply that way of processing problems or questions became instilled. 

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You are at a coffee house speaking to a first-year law student. What advice would you give them? 

To not believe the hype. I remember going through those interviews for summer jobs - the curtained booths, the bell ringing, and later, the assembly line interviews in high rise towers. It creates a false sense of urgency, of importance - like the penultimate success of going to law school is securing a “big law firm” position. Follow your real interests, because they will lead you to meaningful, satisfying work. Or at least, you have a higher chance of ending up there. So many of my classmates and friends who started out on Bay Street left within a few years anyways. That’s not to say that there isn’t satisfying work in the big law jobs, but just that it will only be meaningful to you if that exact type of work is what interests you.  So many law students fall into the trap of “qualifying” - like word hard in high school to qualify for law school; work hard in law school to qualify for….big law. But when you have a law degree, when you are motivated and committed, you have so so so many ways of contributing to society and working. You don’t need to qualify anymore, you need to direct your own life.

Was there another skillset you wish you cultivated during law school that might have been helpful in your career now?

I think the curriculum was maybe a bit light at the time on the international regimes and institutions, international trade law, on IP and health- it's a large and complex and fascinating area, and also one which is extremely relevant from a social justice perspective. The U.N.'s focus this year was on access to medicines through it's High Level Panel; the TPP negotiations came down to the wire on the single issue of appropriate IPR protections for biologic medicines-- these are areas which I learned "on the job" but would love to have had more robust academic footing on. 

If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?

Sleep. Maybe go to the gym, but probably I would end up sleeping there too.

Any regrets? (Yeah, we are retrospective like that).

I wish I hadn’t rushed through law school. I packed in my credits to finish both degrees in 3 years - for financial reasons mostly - but I wish I had slowed down to really absorb more of the materials and left the worry of practice for later. I kind of wish I could go to law school now.