Wisconsin Lawyer: 10 Questions: Janelle Roethel, In-House Counsel: The Secret to Getting Business Done:

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    10 Questions: Janelle Roethel, In-House Counsel: The Secret to Getting Business Done

    Knowing early on what career you want helps sharpen your focus and channel your drive. But in-house counsel Janelle Roethel learned that relationships formed through transitions and collaborations are key to doing business.

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    Janelle Ann Roethel

    com jroethel directsupply Janelle Ann Roethel, Marquette 2012, is corporate counsel for Direct Supply Inc in Milwaukee.

    When and why did you decide you wanted to be a lawyer?

    I was one of those kids who, from a very early age, knew exactly what I wanted to do as a career. I think I have school work from third and fourth grade in which I was already saying that someday I would be a lawyer. I’ve always found the notion of becoming an expert in the law and being able to use that knowledge to help others really appealing.

    So, did you take the traditional political science undergraduate route?

    I did. But, I also dabbled in several other fields. Although I never deviated from my political science major, I realized I was really interested in how people interact and solve problems. I ended up minoring in philosophy, international studies, and peace studies. I also held a paid internship the entire time at a company that sold travel insurance, working on a variety of projects from actuarial assistance to 50-state regulatory surveys.

    Did you go to law school right after college? How was the transition to law school?

    I was really burned out after getting my undergraduate degree, so I decided to take a year off from school. I was fortunate to land a part-time legal intern position right after graduation with Direct Supply Inc. in Milwaukee. The company was a fantastic fit for me (I still work there today), and within a few months the position transitioned from a part-time internship to a full-time specialist position within the legal department. Then I heard about Marquette Law School’s part-time evening law program and decided to apply. I had not planned to attend law school in Milwaukee, but the program turned out to be an excellent fit for me.

    You went to law school in the evening. How did that work for you?

    Marquette’s part-time evening law school program was phenomenal. I really valued the ability to keep working while in school, and the professors understood that we weren’t just students – we had jobs and families outside of school. Plus, because many of the students were working in other fields, the discussions were more than just discussing case law, and often centered around real-world examples and practicalities. The part-time program can take up to six years, but after about three I really needed to set a concrete graduation date. I ended up scaling back at work to part time and going to school full time my last year.

    Which law school classes best prepared you for your work?

    I was fortunate to have a summer internship at Legal Action of Wisconsin. By far, that was the most beneficial “class” in law school because it gave me an opportunity to conduct client interviews. Looking back, the internship marked a turning point as to when I really started understanding that I needed to think about what clients wanted and needed and how to translate the legal proceedings into something they could easily understand. I also took as many legal research and writing classes as I could fit into my schedule. I viewed each class as an opportunity to learn how to be more efficient and effective in my research and communication, and there’s always room to improve.

    In addition to work and law school, what else was going on in your life?

    I had a lot of personal life changes during law school. When I started, I was single and commuting to school and work from about an hour away. Leaving the house at 7 a.m. and getting home at 9:30 p.m. wasn’t an issue because I was focused on my end goals. But after my kids were born, I really felt that I was missing an important part of their lives that I wouldn’t be able to get back, and I needed to find another way to finish school without being gone multiple nights a week.

    You must have had a great support system.

    I have been blessed that both my husband and my employer supported my schooling and provided the flexibility I needed to balance everything. I was able to work from school between classes and at home on the weekend. But, don’t get me wrong, I was always questioning if I was prioritizing the right responsibility at the right time.

    Did the tight law job market cause you to reconsider law school?

    “Reconsider” is probably too strong, but it certainly worried me. I remember being a 1L and hearing the 3Ls early in the fall semester talking about their job offers and what they’d be doing once they wrapped up school. By the time I graduated, many 3Ls didn’t know what they’d be doing even as they finished their final semester. I always believed that law school was the right path for me, but I didn’t expect the market to shrink the way it did. I’m a planner, so the changes definitely scared me.

    Why did you decide to practice corporate law?

    While I was in school, I tried to be open to all areas of the law, but I knew early on that I wanted to ultimately find a position that allowed me to collaborate with others and not constantly be in a combative situation. The corporate setting allows me to provide legal advice that protects the company, while also experiencing first hand the business implications of that advice. The more experience I gain in the corporate setting, the more I appreciate the unique skills and viewpoint each person brings to the table.

    What surprised you the most about practicing corporate law?

    The emphasis on relationships. I work at an employee-owned company in which we’re all partners. First and foremost, I want my partners to trust and value my advice. But above and beyond the internal relationships, every interaction I have with other companies – suppliers, customers, service providers, and so on – reflects on the company and directly impacts how the company is perceived. I wouldn’t have predicted how important strong working relationships would be to getting business done and protecting the company’s reputation and good name.

    What’s been the most challenging aspect of your career so far?

    The transition from a specialist to legal counsel within the same company. As a specialist, I worked within the legal department and spent a lot of time digging into specific regulations and providing background information for our attorneys and business folks. But, I didn’t provide legal advice or make recommendations as to what the business should do. Once I became an attorney I realized that I needed to be more assertive in providing actionable recommendations and supporting the business. I’m an introvert by nature, and I found it was much easier to take on my new role with people that I hadn’t previously worked with than it was to shift the dynamics of existing relationships. Lucky for me, the company’s legal team includes several more experienced attorneys who have been really instrumental in helping me understand my responsibilities to the corporation – both making sure we’re meeting our legal obligations and making smart business decisions.

    Do in-house counsel face the same (or similar) business challenges as do lawyers working in firms?

    Sort of. I think the value of an in-house lawyer really lies in his or her understanding of the company, its values, and its goals. The business can get advice from a variety of sources, including outside counsel and nonlawyer advisors. It’s taking that advice, understanding the company’s needs, and adapting the advice into actionable guidance that makes the in-house counsel position unique.

    What excites you about your career choice?

    I love the constant changes and learning opportunities associated with a growing business. I can’t tell you what business opportunities might come up in one, five, or ten years, but I’m confident there will always be new ways that I can support the business and expand my knowledge.