Confessions of a Reluctant In-House Lawyer

Dana Baughns found a surprising home by going in-house.

Many practicing lawyers aren’t interested in in-house positions. Their reasons can be varied—that it isn’t as exciting as being in a courtroom all the time, they couldn’t see themselves working for just one company and client, or they’re too specialized. One such lawyer was Dana Baughns, now assistant general counsel at Allegis Group, a worldwide staffing firm. Baughns never thought she would go in-house but has been surprised to learn how much the role fits her. Having a seat at the table with her clients before they need her has been an incredibly rewarding experience and one that she definitely didn’t expect. Here, she shares how she made the transition and why she’s never regretted the move to corporate law.

Modern Counsel: What sparked your interest in law?

Dana Baughns: I grew up in Connecticut, where I spent my early school years being bused to a district that I didn’t live in as part of a program to take inner city kids to the suburbs because my mom wanted me to go to a Catholic school there. I complained that I couldn’t walk to school with my friends, but my grandmother kept telling me I was lucky, and I got to do it because of a justice named John Marshall and the work he did as an attorney. I was just in fourth grade, but I remember thinking how much power he must have had. I wanted to know how someone got to make or change the rules. I started reading books about Marshall and thought I wanted to grow up to be the kind of person that could make a difference like he did.

MC: So, did you go right to law school when you had the chance?

DB: Not at first. I minored in pre-law while pursuing my business degree. I wanted to see if law was as interesting to learn as it was portrayed in books I had read or in courtroom dramas on TV.

MC: What made you decide to get your law degree then?

DB: I worked on Capitol Hill with Senator Chris Dodd from Connecticut. This time was really influential to me because I saw the many things you can do with a law degree. I took the LSAT and applied to the University of Connecticut.

MC: Did you have any particular passions that fueled going to law school?

DB: I wanted to be a child advocate. After completing some volunteer work, I realized I couldn’t just turn off my emotions. Issues affecting children were presented simply in the legislature but very complexly in custody and abuse cases. To be a good advocate you have to control your emotions. I realized this probably wasn’t an area I should be in professionally but knew I could still volunteer.

MC: What did you transition to after that realization?

DB: Early in law school, I felt like I was learning a whole new language and realized I had much to learn—it wouldn’t be as simple or as cut and dry as I thought. I was studying just to learn legal vocabulary, and I was also studying the curriculum at the same time. I got a summer associate position with a law firm where we split time between corporate law and litigation. I was interested more in litigation and started to learn so much under a great mentor in labor and employment law that I felt like I was ignoring the corporate law side. So for the next two years, I enrolled in all corporate classes and spent a lot of my energy there. Then I got a job offer in litigation. I was happy, but I had really prepared myself more for the corporate side. I never even took a labor and employment class in law school.

MC: How did you find life at a firm? Did it suit you?

DB: I loved it. I worked at a firm for four years before moving abroad with my husband to Frankfurt, Germany. I returned to Connecticut just under two years later and began working with another Connecticut firm before moving to Washington, DC. That’s when my career started to shift.

MC: What kinds of shifts were you making?

DB: I got a call from a friend who knew of a temporary position with a company for an employment attorney to cover while an employee took maternity leave. I wanted to put myself back out there after my second child but was hesitant because it was an in-house position.

MC: So?

DB: So, real lawyers don’t go in-house! Or at least that’s what I thought at the time. I was in love with firm life, but it was just a four-month contract, and I figured it was a good way to test the waters. I was supposed to shadow for a month, but after three days, the employee was put on bed rest, and I was thrown to the fire.

MC: How did it compare to your stereotypes of in-house work?

DB: Oh, it was totally different. All of my preconceived notions and biases were wrong! I loved it right away because I realized in-house practice was that niche of things that I looked for in private practice. I saw a chance to help a company, my client, mitigate risk early instead of coming in later when they’ve been sued. A light kind of went off for me, and I realized it was a great fit because I had a body of specialized knowledge in a specific space, and that company had a need for that exact expertise. I was valued. When the woman returned from her maternity leave, there was so much work to do that they kept extending my contract.

MC: How did you end up at Allegis?

DB: I saw their job posting and liked their business model of placing employees at a customer’s site to perform services. Again, I knew that my subject matter expertise could really add value there. I met with the general counsel, and saw a good alignment of their culture and my values. I came on as an associate GC focused on employment matters organization-wide and was then promoted to assistant GC. Later, I also assumed general counsel and secretary responsibilities for MarketSource, an operating company of Allegis Group that specializes in marketing and outsourced sales.

MC: What’s kept you in-house?

DB: When I got in-house I saw that I had a seat at the table. In private practice, I was always called upon once the company was sued. It was challenging because I knew I could help avoid these legal issues on the front end if I just had the opportunity for counseling and guidance, but clients didn’t have the time or the budget for that. I wanted to sit at the table as a business partner and help deliver ways for the business to move forward. That’s what I found in-house. If we are aligned, then I want to be part of driving the enterprise forward, and that’s the opportunity that in-house gives you.

MC: What are the main differences between litigation and in-house work?

DB: I think in-house gives an attorney the latitude to find a position that fits him or her perfectly. My business degree has been extremely valuable as I understand what drives my companies, and it’s helped business leaders here value me more. The success of a good GC is when you are in the room with executives because they want you there and not because they just need you there. I get to facilitate the growth of the business, play an active role, and be strategic.

MC: As you seek to be a valued partner, do you find it’s hard to stay current?

DB: It’s learning. It’s discipline. I put time for this in my calendar like I would a meeting with my executive team. I have standing time when I review new legislation or other issues. If I see something interesting during the week, I bookmark it and dump it into a folder that I come back to during this scheduled time.

MC: Do you miss the courtroom?

DB: No, because I’ve developed an in-house practice that gives me the chance to do the things I enjoyed in litigation. When I was at a firm, I was most passionate about writing, research, and developing strategic arguments to help win a case. Here, I set that tone with my outside counsel, and I see that as an active partnership. I’m active in setting up the litigation strategy and in reviewing the pleadings and filings.