“It was love at first sight. New York just blew me away and multiple visits and J1 visas later I moved there full-time in 2004 and have been here since,” says Michelle Oliver, general counsel and head of legal, point of care diagnostics for Siemens’ medical technology subsidiary, Siemens Healthineers.
“I love the anonymity, the sense of anything and everything being possible, the diversity of people, the pace and the energy. Most importantly, I believed (and still do) that for those who aspire to a life with less boundaries or conditions, New York is the place to be.”
Oliver’s decision to move to New York when she qualified in business and law from UCD turned out to be the easy part. Getting a foothold in the city that never sleeps was much harder.
“I knew I’d picked a tough place to start but assumed my degree would open some doors,” she says. “In fact, in the US, UCD couldn’t compete with the established reputation and pedigree of law schools like Yale and Harvard. So, I decided to study for a master’s from the prestigious New York University law school, not because I believed I needed more education necessarily, but because I knew it would add a level of recognition to my resumé that was needed to compete in NY.”
Oliver supported herself by waiting on tables when she could and living out of town where rents were lower but the commute to lectures (which typically started at 8am) was 90 minutes.
In Ireland, you listen and take copious notes. Here it’s all about verbally challenging each other and trying to critique the judges’ opinions— Michelle Oliver on studying in the US
“It was exhausting but exhilarating to be surrounded by such incredibly sharp minds,” she says. “It was also a whole new experience because in Ireland, you listen and take copious notes. Here it’s all about verbally challenging each other and trying to critique the judges’ opinions.”
Oliver eventually got her break when she saw a rare advertisement for a legal associate. “They needed someone fast because a trial was starting,” she says. “I got an opportunity to meet the managing partner of the law firm, I made my pitch and got hired as a commercial litigator which is highly challenging for someone who hasn’t come up through the American system. I was working around the clock for 18 months until the financial crisis brought everything tumbling down.”
Oliver’s firm dissolved, which was a blow at the time, but it ultimately led to an opportunity that was to change the course of her career.
She was offered the chance to work on the client side on a big pharmaceutical litigation case and this experience convinced her that she wanted a move away from the “rather insular world of big law firms and into a more expansive in-house role”.
“As a litigator, I had worked on a vast array of high stakes litigation, including one case that went all the way to the Supreme Court where I watched one of my personal idols, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, decide the case,” Oliver says. “But I had reached a point where I wanted a change.
They were looking for an international lawyer and the job involved regular connection and travel to Europe which really appealed to me— Michelle Oliver
“It’s difficult for litigators to transition from a law firm to in-house so I realised the uniqueness of the opportunity. Generic pharma is extremely aggressive from a legal perspective as legal disputes are often embedded in the business model, including lawsuits, so it was a perfect move for me as a former litigator.”
Oliver spent four years with Breckenridge Pharmaceutical and, in 2013, joined Siemens Healthineers as in-house counsel.
“As I read the job description it was like it was written for me,” she says. “They were looking for an international lawyer and the job involved regular connection and travel to Europe which really appealed to me. I had just had my first child so we would regularly fly to Dublin, my parents would mind my daughter and I’d head off to Germany to work for the week.”
When Covid hit in 2020, Oliver decamped to East Hampton. “I was completely consumed by work and had a young child and an 18-month-old – with limited childcare – and was working 15 hours [a] day with the toddler literally under my desk because I was part of the Siemens Healthineers team dedicated to bringing a Covid test to market,” Oliver says.
“Other people were binging on Netflix, taking up crochet and meditation during the lockdown. I was sleeping with my phone on and taking calls at crazy hours. We knew we could make a real difference in people’s lives and we were trying to get the test to market as quickly as possible and managed to do so in record time.
“We worked with the WHO [World Health Organisation], the FDA [US regulator, the Food and Drug Administration], and the US federal government to get the tests into the population and this part of my professional life will always stand out as it was an opportunity to do something that impacted lives in real-time when there was no precedent for how to get it all done.”
Oliver lives in Tribeca and works between home and her office in New York. Any spare time is spent with her family at their weekend house in East Hampton.
“NY demands your full commitment to work and professional life. It’s in the DNA of the people and the corporate culture and it suits me because I’m a driven and ambitious person,” she says. “It’s been suggested that I can now take a rest and stop climbing but that’s not who I am. I am always looking for ways to grow and evolve from a career perspective.”