M’Lou Bahlinger knew right away that she wanted to go in-house. All it took was a short stint as a paralegal between college and law school to help her realize firm life wasn’t for her. Instead of focusing on disputes and billable hours, she wanted to be part of a team to help guide a company through the ups and downs of business—and she’s had that chance over the last twenty-six years at Boston Market.
Both the law and long-tenured employment are in Bahlinger’s genes. Her great uncle, Paul M. Hebert, was an attorney and judge who served as Louisiana State University’s dean from 1937 to 1977. In 1947, Hebert received an appointment as a judge for post-World War II Tribunals in Nuremberg, where he presided over the I.G. Farben trial and dissented against the acquittal of German chemical firm employees accused of war crimes. Today, Louisiana State University’s law school is known as the Paul M. Hebert Law Center.
Although observing and interacting with Hebert influenced Bahlinger, she opted to study at Tulane University Law School. She started working in a savings and loan association until the financial institutions reform and recovery act changed the industry almost overnight. Then, Bahlinger moved to the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), a government entity established to liquidate insolvent savings and loan assets. By 1995, when the Savings Association Insurance Fund took over RTC’s operations, Bahlinger had moved to Denver. She found an open position at a growing carryout chicken and fast-food franchise that had just relocated to Colorado from the Chicago area.
The company, then known as Boston Chicken, was in the midst of a nationwide expansion. “It was an exciting time at a company with a unique way of doing franchises and that presented a lot of opportunities for a young in-house lawyer to get involved and really learn a lot,” Bahlinger explains. With hundreds of stores and millions of dollars in annual sales, the company started expanding its menu beyond its signature chicken dishes, and Boston Chicken became Boston Market.
Over the next two years, General Counsel Don Bingle led a large department responsible for everything from trademark filings to franchise disclosures to real estate issues to litigation matters. Bingle mentored Bahlinger and many other young attorneys in the large and active legal department, and she was able to gain experience in copyrights, intellectual property, marketing, employment law, and human resources.
Boston Market has weathered many highs and lows over its history, and Bahlinger has grown and evolved alongside the company. In 1998, when Boston Market acquired existing companies to form the Einstein and Noah Bagel Corporation, she became focused more on employment law. Unfortunately, Boston Chicken’s business model proved unsustainable, and leaders filed for a Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. Bahlinger’s broad skills helped her weather the uncertain era.
“It’s essential for corporate lawyers to be business minded and add value,” she says. “The closer you can get to supporting the core business, the better chance you have of being retained when hard times come.”
McDonald’s bought Boston Market out of bankruptcy for $173 million in 2000 and led the company to a rebound before its sale to Sun Capital Partners seven years later. Changes in ownership brought different leaders, granting Bahlinger the opportunity to learn new styles and approaches. She mastered legal skills associated with contracts, technology, point of sale systems, data, and privacy. In 2020, Boston Market sold to the Rohan Group.
After more than a quarter century, Bahlinger recently decided to leave the company to have more free time and focus on things outside of the organization and outside of the law. She encourages law students and aspiring corporate attorneys to develop broad expertise and stay hungry for knowledge. “I was able to thrive in one organization because I always kept learning,” she says. “That strategy will open many doors and lead to a long and fulfilling career.”