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Interview: Margaret Denton: The In-House Counsel Career Path

Denton After working at a small law firm during law school, Margaret Denton decided that she did not like the atmosphere of a partnership or the type of work she'd be expected to handle as an entry-level associate. So soon after finishing law school, she went to business school and earned an MBA.

Following an eighteen month stint at PriceWaterhouse after completing her MBA, Denton decided to pursue an in-house legal career where she could leverage her combined legal and business experience. She landed a position as a staff litigator with Subway, the restaurant franchiser. Networking ultimately led to further in-house positions at Response Insurance (an Internet-only insurer) and Regus Group (an operator of business centers).

Denton is now President and COO of DM Partners, a fast-growing provider of direct marketing database services. Denton says that the one of the most satisfying parts of her job is taking her legal experience and applying it to the business side of operations. This includes a standardized "Top 10 List" that Denton implemented for evaluating all of the company's employees on a host of metrics such as time management, attitude, etc. Denton says that the system is designed to reduce the incidence of wrongful discharge and discrimination charges since it puts all employees on the same page. Just one example of how bringing a legal perspective to a vexing business issue can bear fruit.

For those attorneys aspiring to an in-house career, Denton advises learning about the industries in which you are interested, and a whole lot of networking at conferences, seminars and other events.

Click below to read Denton's interview.

JD Bliss (JDB):  You have more than 20 years of in-house counsel experience, and now have moved in a new direction as President and Chief Operations Officer of a full-service database and marketing management company.  Why did you initially choose to attend law school and pursue a career as a lawyer?

Denton:  I wish I could say there was some epiphany that occurred to set me on my path, but there wasn't.  As far back as I can remember I have always said I was going to be an attorney.  I knew this before I left high school and continued that goal through college, when I got my B.A. degree from Lincoln University.  I went right from there to law school, and got my J.D. in 1983 from Temple University in Philadelphia.       

JDB:  You got your M.B.A. degree from Cornell two years after you graduated from law school. Had you been in practice at that point, and did you already envision a business career? 

Denton:  I didn't envision a business career when I applied to law school.  But I found law school coursework to be more regimented and unsatisfying than I expected.  I worked part time for a small law firm during my time at law school and decided I did not like the atmosphere of a partnership or the type of work I expected to end up with as an entry-level associate.  I really wanted to work on a variety of creative projects, rather than go in lockstep from the work of a first-year associate, to second-year level tasks, and so on.  I took as many courses in corporate law as I could and applied to business school with the perhaps naive idea that it would enable me to go directly into an in-house career and expand my skill set by working in a variety of areas.  My first experience out of business school was somewhat disappointing, in that I spent 18 months at PriceWaterhouse and found that the same limited room for growth existed.  I realized there would be a pecking order, but I didn’t feel I was challenged enough.

JDB: Yet you remained in the corporate world, and held several in-house counsel positions at companies in a variety of industries.  How did you manage the various transitions?

Denton:  I moved from Virginia, where the operation in which I had a senior debt restructuring role was located, to Connecticut and was able to secure a position as a staff litigator with Subway, the restaurant franchiser.  I handled everything from contract matters to disputes with franchisees to employment matters involving alleged discrimination and similar issues.  I liked the focus in litigation because it exposed me to so many different areas, and stayed at Subway for four years. 

In 1997 I had the opportunity to be part of the early wave and became corporate legal counsel for a new startup company based in White Plains, New York, Response Insurance.  They’re a direct insurer that does business entirely online, offering free quotes and selling policies in most states.  Again I worked on a wide range of things, such as acquisition warranties, risk management and employee manuals.

In 2000, I used my networking connections to win the position as Vice President and North American legal counsel for Regus Group.  They are based in New York City but operate a network of business centers and video conferencing facilities in 60 cities around the world.  All these companies were in vastly different industries, but as a corporate attorney you use the same basic skills no matter what the business application, so I never found the transition to be a problem.    

JDB:  Many attorneys are interested in moving from a firm to an in-house career.  Based on your own experience, what would you recommend as the best avenues to pursue for an in-house position?

Denton:  My two points of advice are, first, know as much as possible about the industry in which you wish to pursue a position, and second, spend time networking on a professional level.  That networking should not just be a conference – many times, training events and seminars will give you the opportunity you need.   If you are changing careers or attempting to do something you haven't done, I think that is a hard sell to recruiters, so I have always avoided going that route.       

JDB:  When did you join your current company, DM Partners, and how did you learn about the opportunity?

Denton:  The opportunity was really borne out of me trying to establish myself in a “Corporate Counsel Retainer for Hire” type of practice after I left Regus to marry and move out of New York and back to the Philadelphia area.   I chose that career direction because I wanted to keep doing in-house work, but with more flexibility and with greater challenges.  Basically I marketed myself by contacting a variety of companies in the area where we lived.  That included DM Partners, which I had known about earlier.    The company had been founded with three employees in 1996 as a DRTV – direct response television – database manager, handling the order fulfillment for what most people know as infomercials.  From that beginning they had expanded to provide database systems for direct marketing campaigns, produce targeted mailing pieces for lead generation and response fulfillment, and manage back-end database support and analysis for insurers, direct marketing advertising agencies and printers throughout the U.S.  They were growing rapidly, and in the latter part of 2002 asked me, on a retainer basis, to look at their HR pitfalls, contracts, risk program, and so on, from the perspective of a general counsel – but not on the payroll.

JDB: Were you providing the same type of service to any other companies?

Denton:   No, DM Partners was my first client and they always gave me plenty to do.  While I was on retainer I never had a formal office or schedule there, but I spent a lot of time with them just to learn the people and the organization, so it became almost second nature for everyone that I was there.  My expertise with a general business background allowed me to provide greater assistance than they expected in various avenues and ultimately I was given the responsibility to implement my recommendations as President and COO.      

JDB:  At DM Partners you have been involved in marketing, human resources, quality assurance and other non-attorney specialties.  Which have you found to be most satisfying, particularly in light of your training as an attorney?

Denton:   Each day is a different and I am challenged in a different way.  The most satisfying part of what I’ve done is taking my legal experience and applying it to the business side of their operations.  Having been an in-house litigator, I know the problems and pitfalls companies can face.  For example, contract problems are a big issue so I added legal language from a business perspective into our sign off process knowing the problems that unstated expectations can cause.    

JDB:  Your innovative approach to HR sounds particularly intriguing.  Could you elaborate on your “Top 10 List”?

Denton:  It really grew out of my employment litigation experience with other companies.  DM Partners has grown to nearly 30 people in positions as varied as mailing machine operator, database specialist, and salesperson.  I’ve seen so many times that companies can face allegations of discrimination or wrongful discharge when employees feel the playing field for evaluations isn’t level, even when positions are vastly different.  Evaluations are really not for raises, but to provide direction, growth and rewards to the employee.  That means they should be clearly understood – not so complicated it takes two days to complete and ten to defend.  What we did with the “Top 10 List” was identify ten key measures of job success that don’t change over time and that apply to every position:  accountability, organization, time management, attitude, and so on.  Each person has specific criteria within each of these measures.  Time management means a different thing for a machine operator and a salesperson, but both can be evaluated on how well they manage time in their own job.  The simplicity of this system keeps me from spending too much time in depositions and litigation trying to defend wrongful dismissal or discrimination suits.  Everyone is on the same page.   If you had to defend this system, you could.  It’s clear and directly fashioned to each employee’s role.

JDB:  The “Top 10 List” obviously has a strong legal focus.  Has your training as a lawyer been an advantage to you in your corporate career? 

Denton:  Absolutely.  I have a running joke that I think everyone should go to law school.  It teaches you a different way to think, look for all alternatives, and solve problems.       

JDB:  Did you envision yourself becoming COO of the company?  What were the biggest factors in your selection for such a key position?

Denton:  No, I loved being a GC.  And I got involved in all aspects of the business:  helping open regional sales offices, launching an enhanced web site, securing minority business certification, establishing quality control procedures for machine operators, and launching a customer loyalty program, to name a few.  The opportunity to have formal responsibility for all these activities presented itself and had many upside factors and it was a challenge on the business side I had to try.  I took the COO position in September of 2004, after more than a year of working with the company, and it has been as fulfilling as I had hoped.       

JDB:  You’ve had an innovative career, in the way you’ve practiced law and the way you’ve moved beyond it.  What advice would you give to other attorneys who have considered pursuing career directions beyond the law, but are reluctant to make a change?

Denton:  Career paths are just that – a path or direction you follow for personal fulfillment.   There are no official road maps, nothing you “should” do other than decide what you find satisfying and pursue it.  You can’t go wrong working toward what you like.  There are many things in life that we change, sometimes often, in order to find greater satisfaction. 

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