“I love making things better for people. Especially in their darkest times.”

How an unspeakably abused child turned Shannon Couffer toward a legal career of care and advocacy, which ultimately landed her in Walgreens’s corner

Shannon Couffer practices law because of one five-year-old girl.

It was the early 1990s, and Couffer herself was barely out of her teens. Fulfilling a lifelong dream to become a nurse, she was on a pediatric rotation at a hospital in northern Indiana. “My pediatric nursing professor said ‘I’ve got a very special little girl in the hospital playroom that I need you to take care of,’” Couffer recalls. “That was the moment that my direction in life changed.”

The little girl was named Carli, with the emphasis on little—she was very small for her age. And when Couffer got down on the playroom floor with her to explain who she was, one of the first things said by blonde, blue-eyed girl still strikes Couffer with as much sadness as it does amazement: “Who are all these other little people?” she asked Couffer, referring to the kids in the playroom.

“I actually had to explain that they were children, just like her,” Couffer says. “She had no concept of what that word meant! It became clear she’d never had any exposure to other kids—just adults.”

The initial shock of conversing with the five-year-old—“She had the mouth of a trucker!” Couffer adds with a laugh—was nothing compared to how she felt upon learning that Carli had tested HIV-positive, was suffering from gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia, and had been given birth control pills, resulting in the extremely premature appearance of secondary sex characteristics. She’d arrived at the hospital with a high fever and severe upper respiratory infection. Her parents, aware she was quite ill but unwilling to answer questions, had simply dropped her off at the hospital’s emergency room entrance and driven away.

“We eventually determined that they’d kept Carli in their home, never let her out, and sold her to men for drug money,” Couffer says. “Five years old, and her whole life she had been abused by who knows how many men. She broke my heart.”

For the next couple months Carli stayed in the hospital as her condition slowly stabilized. Couffer visited her regularly—a couple times a week, at least—as she continued her training as a nurse. Foster care awaited the child, and when Carli was released from the hospital, and her state-assigned caseworker took over, Couffer was dismayed to discover her involvement in the case had to come to an involuntary end. “I wanted the caseworker to tell me what was happening,” she says. “I wanted to go and participate in the courtroom process and advocate on her behalf, and they wouldn’t tell me anything. Not even what had happened with trying to find the parents. They wouldn’t share any details with me.

“I felt like a bandage—just covering up the wound, but not doing anything to fix it. I felt like I didn’t have any impact. And it frustrated me.”

“I felt like a bandage—just covering up the wound, but not doing anything to fix it. I felt like I didn’t have any impact. And it frustrated me.”

Frustration can take people in all sorts of unexpected directions. For Couffer, it took her to law school—specifically, the Civitas ChildLaw Center of Loyola University in Chicago. When she applied for the program in 1995, only 10 students were being accepted each year. Couffer was one of the 10.

“The focus of the program—caring for abused children—is a multidisciplinary effort, so they really focus on teaching people to look at every angle of every issue from a holistic perspective,” she explains. “Not just from [the student’s] lens, or what we were trained to do.”

Her previous line of work actually helped finance her new one. Couffer did long-term-care nursing during one year of law school and worked as a nurse at a junior high school the other two years. She also volunteered whenever she could, both in medicine and in law. It was an opportunity in 1995 with the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office, in the Chicago suburb of Waukegan, Illinois, that led to her first full-time job as a lawyer. Serving predominantly in cases dealing with child abuse/neglect, domestic violence/homicide, sexual abuse, and child exploitation, Couffer found herself in the kind of legal work that burns out many dedicated attorneys in just two or three years. She, however, worked for six. “For me, women and child advocacy is a vocation, not a career,” she says. “I stayed with it as long as I did because I believed it was my calling to help those who couldn’t help themselves, who didn’t have a voice,” she says.

Three years in the civil division of the state’s attorney’s office came next; Couffer dealt with compliance issues related to new-at-the-time HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). But as preparations for a new administration began in her office in 2005, she decided to consider new directions for her career. She kept her medical background in mind, as well as the wealth of Chicago-based headquarters for health-care organizations, and Walgreens came up clearly on her radar.

“Walgreens’s current slogan—‘At the corner of happy and healthy’—has been the company’s mission for as long as I can remember,” she says. “It’s a company that takes care of people, and that’s what was really exciting to me.”

She still wanted to care for people, too, and was initially wary at the thought of corporate litigation leading her to long days of “defending a company against bad drug cases.” But the more she became familiar with regulatory law—the area in which she has now served Walgreens for nearly a decade—the more she felt a natural progression from her days in the state’s attorney’s office. For in reviewing every private label (nonbrand-name) item Walgreens carries, Couffer and her team must make sure its label is in compliance with the law, with clear and conspicuous warnings and easy-to-find directions. “We’re responsible for making sure that every aspect of that label is accurate and in compliance, so people can get healthier,” she says. “We’re impacting the population as a whole because there are so many people who shop these stores every day.”

In coming to understand the importance of her new niche, she found herself learning something quite unexpected—how to see shades of gray in a world she’d previously identified as black and white. Coming from a tough legal arena where people were either found guilty or not guilty—nothing in between—the concept of “gray” was a challenge for Couffer (some days it still is, she admits). But the transition is what’s helped her to become a leader as a corporate attorney. And she credits Garry Hodge, her Walgreens manager, for helping her with the adjustment.

“He’s really worked with me over the course of my tenure here to help me see that, in law, there really isn’t black and white in most situations—it’s always shades of gray,” she says of Hodge. “It’s about acceptable risk tolerance—really understanding the world wasn’t as rigid as I saw it. There is much more flexibility to almost every situation.”

How much of this kind of understanding is needed on a day-to-day basis for Couffer? It depends entirely on what is being asked of her and her team, and how much perspective clients have, given their viewpoints and experience. “It’s my job to figure out the universe of an issue that we need to resolve and where it sits in the shades of gray,” she says. “It takes a lot of research, a lot of questions, a lot of digging, and a lot of analysis. It can’t happen in a black-and-white environment—it has to happen in a very flexible, fluid way.”

Her team of 10, which includes four regulatory law attorneys, four paralegals, and two administrative assistants, deal with the regulation needs of all nonpharmaceutical Walgreens products. This covers environmental matters, customs compliance, and most government agencies (aside from Medicaid, Medicare, and the Drug Enforcement Agency) that Walgreens interacts with on state, municipal, and federal levels. Unsurprisingly, the level of care Couffer has exhibited her entire career is also apparent when considering her role with her legal team. Communicating a purpose for the work they do is key, she says, as is connecting their everyday work to said purpose.

“If you’re building widgets in a factory, and you’re not connecting with the fact that that widget will later be part of a brake system that’s going to keep somebody safe, you may not be as passionate about your job,” she points out. “The same holds true for my team as they work through their legal issues. It’s important for them to remember that everything they’re doing is going to make customers happier and healthier.”

Couffer still thinks about little Carli regularly, though she hasn’t seen her since those early nursing days over two decades ago. Regardless, the five year-old has lived on through every embattled life changed due to Couffer’s decision to practice law.

“I love caring for people, and I love making things better for people,” she says. “Especially in their darkest times.”