Neil Belloff, General Counsel, Acorda Therapeutics, believes in treating every employee like family.
CCBJ: What led you to your current role with Acorda?
Neil Belloff: After being elevated to COO & GC, navigating through a pandemic, battling cancer and completing a successful merger and a $50 million capital raise, it was time for a much needed vacation—and a new challenge.
Tell us about your leadership style. Who or what has influenced it?
My style is to win colleagues over using my interpersonal communication skills. I fancy myself a raconteur and I have a panoply of stories to tell in a disarming, enlightening and humorous way. I have always been a keen observer of human interactions. Not everyone is motivated in the same way and a good leader knows how to motivate on an individual level and inspire people to be the best they can be.
I have been influenced by Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Sitting Bull, Marquis de Lafayette, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Neil Armstrong, Eleanor Roosevelt (all of whose autographs I display proudly), among others. In my career, I have been lucky enough to have had mentors who were brilliant, kind and caring and I wanted to emulate their example. It is not surprising that in my law school yearbook under my photo, it says: “If you’ve lived your life and haven’t contributed to mankind, your life has been a waste of time.” That doesn’t mean if you don’t cure cancer, you haven’t made a significant contribution, but that we all have a responsibility to leave this planet and its inhabitants in a better condition than when we arrived on it. It’s as simple as turning someone’s frown into a smile. Whatever you can do to uplift another human being, even for a brief moment, is all it takes.
What are the key qualities you look for when you’re hiring?
Given that I myself am not a product of a prep-school education, the Ivy League or a big Wall Street law firm, I am always looking for talent in untraditional places. I scrutinize resumes for something that stands out and justifies why I should give this person a shot. I recognize that some applicants have had to try harder and do better to compete with the perception that graduating from Ivy schools or practicing in BigLaw correlates to intelligence, because that’s what I came up against. I also know from experience that it takes more than intelligence to succeed and to be a leader and mentor. It’s also become clear to me that a lawyer needs to have practical business sense.
Last but not least, I’m a big believer in DEIJ (diversity, equity, inclusion and justice). There’s more to achieving equity than just hiring diverse people. It’s just as important to welcome a diversity of opinion, to extend respect and equal pay across gender and ethnic lines, and to provide mentoring and advancement opportunities to those who historically and currently have been denied equal access and equitable outcomes in education, business, the legal system and healthcare.
How would you describe the culture of your organization?
The culture is very family-oriented, meaning every employee is treated like family. Even newcomers like me have been welcomed into the family without reservation or suspicion. There is a trust and sense of collegiality that we all seem to share. It is a very team-oriented approach; a collective sense that we are all in it together and what each of us does matters and impacts the success of the whole enterprise.
A headhunter once asked me what was the most important thing I wanted in a new position—and my response was that my relationship with the CEO and other members of leadership be more akin to a partnership than a monarchical vertical relationship.
Having a seat at the table is one thing; having a voice at the table is something completely different. With the latter comes respect, recognition and value in what a person has to contribute.
Share with our readers any noteworthy career advice you’ve received.
Some of the things I have learned along my long and winding journey include:
- Always move forward, never backward
- Random acts of kindness go a long way and don’t cost very much
- Be sensitive and diplomatic in how you interact with others since you don’t know where they have come from or what they are going through
- It’s not necessary to be nasty or abusive to prove one’s point; bullying has no place in business or social settings – you will always get more flies with honey than with vinegar
When asked for career advice, what words of wisdom do you give to other professionals?
- Perseverance and patience are critical. When I graduated law school, I sent out 1,000 resumes and received 500 rejection letters—on letterhead of some of the best firms in the country—which I still keep in a shoebox in my attic to remind myself of how difficult it was starting out. After the first 20 or 30 rejections, you become numb to the pain and begin to pride yourself on being able to tell by the envelope that it is a turndown. But never lose hope and persevere and you will turn around some day and look back on a very fruitful career. The difficulties one encounters will soon be in the rearview mirror.
- You have to perform! Even if you have to work twice as hard as everyone else to succeed. And you have to prove your worth every day. Unlike Roger Clemens, one of the most successful power pitchers in history, who once said after a terrible outing that he “just had a bad day,” lawyers are not allowed to have a bad day. Imagine telling your client that he or she is going to prison because you “had a bad day!!” You should always strive to be on top of your game and learn as much as possible and stay abreast of the latest trends and regulatory changes. There are a myriad of resources available – use them!
- Always set your sights high. I asked a prospective hire where he wanted to be in a few years in his career and he responded that he wanted to be a vice president in charge of a small IP department. I said, “No you don’t!” He said, “I don’t?” and I replied, “You want to be general counsel.” When he proceeded to tell me he knew nothing about securities or corporate law, I said I would teach him. Because that is my responsibility—to mentor the next generation of leaders and provide them with the skills and resources they need to fulfill their career potential. When I was a NYC high school teacher, my greatest accomplishment and joy was watching my students achieve great successes. So too in my profession, I revel in my colleagues’ career advancements.
- It’s never too early to network. This should happen from day one—even before law school graduation. Most career opportunities will come about through network contacts, as will most business development opportunities. The younger generation is much more adept at social media and I tell them these tools will be useful in their career journey. Go to networking events and stay in touch with people. You never know who will be there to assist when needed or who will reach out because they remembered you took the time to keep in contact.
- Never lose sight of the human aspect in everything you do. It’s what makes us compassionate and passionate about what we do and why. Don’t be afraid to be human and let others into your personal world. You will find most people have the same fears, desires and similar journeys. We all make mistakes and relaying that to someone else and how we learned from our mistakes just shows that we are human and at the same time accountable for our actions. We shouldn’t not do something because we are afraid of failure. There is a little bit of risk in everything we do.
- Affect positive change wherever and whenever possible. And every now and then pat yourself on the back for a job well done. (But even if you don’t, know that others will ultimately recognize your accomplishments.)
What changes would you like to see within the legal profession?
While that is a loaded question, I would like to see more mentorship, more diversity (including more mentoring of young lawyers with different backgrounds than one’s own), more sensitivity to others, and more flexibility (now that we are in the COVID era, I believe hybrid work environments are here to stay). It used to be there were 20 people lined up for your job. At least that’s what partners would say, and it was likely true—25 or 30 years ago. But that is no longer the case and the profession needs to embrace the younger generation’s view on work-life balance and take it to heart. While I preached a lot about it in my career, I have never been able to find that balance. I never took a non-working vacation until last year when I was between jobs; it took me two days to realize I did not have any work to do and to relax on a beach near Charleston.
I also think that law firm partnership structures will need to change and become more egalitarian, meaning that the profit-share needs to be more equitable, including associates. I have seen more firms implode due to ego than debt obligations.
Billing models need to be re-examined, particularly if the overhead expense decreases (due to a hybrid model). Otherwise, the growth of on-demand attorney firms will gain a lot of traction as they can deliver quality services for a fraction of the billable rate of larger firms.
Lastly, I think that the “profession” needs to treat all personnel with respect (from the mail room to admins to paralegals). After all, we are all human beings with the same frailties, hopes, dreams, fears, etc. We are not superior because we went to law school. Like most doctors who go to medical school, most of us went to law school in order to help others – that should be a life-long endeavor.