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Counsel sees benefit of 'growing up' with the company

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In-House Counsel

Working for a company while in law school then staying at that company as a lawyer is fairly rare, but it happens.

Even less common for today’s in-house counsel is starting at a company without a bachelor’s degree making $6 per hour doing data entry work and staying with that company through the completion of undergraduate and law school degrees.

Debi Edwards, vice president and corporate counsel to Heritage Environmental Services in Indianapolis, a full-service environmental firm, did just that.

She started with the company in its Chicago facility’s commercial lab in 1989 doing data entry. In 1992, she was transferred to Indianapolis where she continued to work in the commercial lab setting. In 1995, Edwards was the first person at Heritage to become a project chemist without a bachelor’s degree.
 

Debi Edwards Before she was a lawyer, Debi Edwards worked in Heritage Environmental Services’ commercial labs. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

It was in 1998 at an employment issues training at Baker & Daniels that she decided she wanted to be a lawyer.

“That was my moment,” she said.

Edwards researched what she needed to do to become a lawyer, and the first step was finishing her undergraduate work. She enrolled in evening classes at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis in August 1998 and received a bachelor’s degree four years later.

The following year, she began full-time legal studies at Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, but she eventually returned to Heritage full-time and took classes part-time. She graduated from law school in 2006. She also earned a master’s in business administration in December 2010 from Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management following three years of Saturday classes.

“I admire Deb’s determination and drive. Not only did she work full time while going to law school, she also did the same thing for her MBA. And even more impressive she did that while raising her son, Jonathon, who is a remarkable young man,” said Edwards’ friend and Baker & Daniels attorney Jacqueline Simmons.

The summer before her last year of law school, Edwards e-mailed the owner of Heritage, who she had never met, and the two had coffee to talk about what she could offer the company as a lawyer.

He then worked with her and helped her get experience at three different Indianapolis law firms: three months at Bingham McHale for experience in transactional work, three months at Plews Shadley Racher & Braun for experience in environmental and insurance work, and three months at Baker & Daniels for experience in labor and employment and intellectual property issues.

In August 2006 she became Heritage’s corporate counsel. In January 2008 she was promoted to vice president.

Her firm experience was invaluable, she said. She continues to meet the firm lawyers she worked with on a regular basis.

“As a legal department of one, I can’t just walk out the door and talk to another attorney when I have a question,” she said.

Even though she had been with the company her entire career, Edwards said she had a learning curve when she took on the role of corporate counsel. She had to learn about what happens outside of the commercial lab.

One of the first things she did was to meet with department heads and tour the facilities to learn about all the company’s operations.

She said as in-house counsel she spends a significant amount of time managing outside counsel – especially on issues having to do with facilities in other states or outside of the country, including a facility in Puerto Rico and another in China. She often hires outside counsel for litigation because she doesn’t have the time to devote to it, and if there’s an environmental issue that needs a more experienced attorney, she’ll hire outside counsel to handle that. Much of her day is spent writing and reviewing contracts.

When it comes to labor and employment issues of Heritage Environmental Services’ 550 employees working in its 14 locations, Edwards works closely with the company’s human resources department. She also works with the company’s vice president of compliance and safety as needed.

Edwards said she continues to learn new things about the company and its mission of removing waste for clients along with researching new ways of reusing that waste.

For example, the company has a patented way to turn copper into a food-additive for pigs called Tribasic Copper Chloride. As a result, it started a subsidiary called Micronutrients. The company has also patented a way to turn electric arc furnace dust and basic oxygen furnace dust from steel mills into three other products: crude zinc oxide, pig iron, and a high-quality slag that has several applications, she said.

In fact, the entry way to the building that houses Edwards’ office includes an entire wall of glass-encased shelves covered with plaques of various patents held by Heritage.

Because she doesn’t work with other in-house lawyers at Heritage, Edwards said she makes more of an effort to get involved with bar associations.

She became chair of the Indiana State Bar Association’s Corporate Counsel Section, and she is also actively involved with the Indianapolis Bar Association through its Women and the Law Division and the Bar Leadership Series.

The ISBA Corporate Counsel Section is working to become more active, and as chair Edwards said she has been working closely with Maryann Williams, director of section services for the ISBA, and that the section will partner with the Business Law Section for a continuing legal education event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May.

Because the ISBA is a statewide organization, she and other members of the section’s executive committee are working to determine if they will host events around the state or stay in central Indiana, where the majority of Indiana’s in-house lawyers seem to be based.

She is also respected by outside counsel she works with.

“She has tremendous insights into the business’ objectives and at the same time is a very talented advocate,” said Pamela Goodwin, an attorney with Saul Ewing in Princeton, N.J.

The two have worked together on issues specific to New Jersey regulations when it comes to transporting solid and hazardous waste. Goodwin said some of those regulations are highly specific because they date back to a time when the mob influenced transportation of certain materials.

“When we’ve had to deal with regulators, she not only understood the issues but could also translate them successfully to the business people she works with,” Goodwin said.

Even though Edwards had just started as corporate counsel when the two began working together, “I was surprised when I first met her that she was a relatively new lawyer. She seemed so experienced and confident,” Goodwin said, adding she was particularly impressed with Edwards’ ability to achieve a high position in a male-dominated field.

“The thing I love most about working with her is she is always upbeat. I say that because she’s had a lot of pressures over the years and has not had an easy go of it. But she always sees the glass half full or all full for that matter,” Goodwin said.•

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  • Response
    I think it is quite ingenius that this company has managed a way to turn electric arc furnace repair dust and basic oxygen furnace dust from steel mills into quite valuable resources such as crude zinc oxide, pig iron and high-quality slag.

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  1. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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