Alumni Q&A with Joni Lee Gaudes '97, General Counsel of 1-800-DENTIST
Q: How did you decide that you wanted to study
A: I earned my undergraduate degree from UC Santa Barbara in Law and Society, which is their pre-law degree. I have two older sisters; one is a pharmacist and one is an attorney. And I thought, "I don't excel in math and science, so why don't I go into law?"
I graduated in 1993 from UCSB and took a year off. I worked as a receptionist at a very small law firm in Orange County, working to see what they do. I decided to take the plunge after that. I went to Southwestern and graduated in 1997.
Q: How did you choose Southwestern?
A: It's relatively close to home. But more importantly, I didn't want to go too far away. There had been some pretty notable alumni who attended Southwestern. It just seemed like the right fit for me. I knew it was a tough program and I liked the schedule and curriculum.
Q: Could you describe your career path that took you to your current position as General Counsel at 1-800-DENTIST?
A: I started off in law school clerking for a noted plaintiff firm in the area, Girardi & Keese. I started on the litigation track during the summer after my first year. I continued working with them through my second year and then switched to the defense side and worked at Murchison & Cumming, a long standing defense firm. I worked there during my third year since it was so close to school; they offered me a position after my second year to work there as an associate. So I worked at Murchison & Cumming for a while before I moved to Breidenbach, Huchting & Hamblet. I was there for about eight years and practiced insurance and business litigation. Then I became partner in 2003 and took over their hiring as well. We hired some great Southwestern alumni to work for us.
In 2006, I was ready for a change and thought I should consider moving in-house. I loved the firm that I was working for and the mentors that I had, but this position at 1-800-DENTIST opened up. As people know, 1-800-DENTIST is a dental marketing company that matches patients and dentists. People who call our 1-800 number or visit our website (www.1800dentist.com) get matched with a pre-screened dentist based on their location, their dental need, and any insurance they may have. An operator take their call, gets their information and then connects them to one of our member dentists. When they extended me an offer, I decided to take the position.
Q: How would you describe a typical work day?
A: No one day is typical! In addition to handling all the legal affairs of 1-800-DENTIST, the Human Resources and Quality Assurance (QA) Departments report to me. Our QA Department screens all potential dentists who wish to join our service to confirm they have a valid dental license, that they are currently not on probation or suspension, and that they have adequate malpractice insurance. And then, as an ongoing process, we monitor consumer feedback, both positive and negative.
So, I might review a contract and make changes before it is signed or prepare a contract with a company we are working with in order to generate more leads for our member dentists. Or, I may send out a cease and desist letter to a company who is infringing upon one of our trademarks. I also review all advertisements, commercials and other marketing copy which is sent to the public. Or, I may consult with our outside counsel on litigation that the company may be involved with.
It's a lot of different things, both legally and operationally - it's very interesting!
Q: How would you compare your work as a general counsel to your work at a law firm?
A: Well, as people always point out to me, "There are no billable hours!" which is the great thing. I can spend as much time as I want to work on something. The deadlines are still there, the pressure is still there, and I'm probably working as much as I was as an attorney working for a firm. But the reward is really learning about the company, my "client." When an issue arises, I do my part in working out a creative solution to address it and really seeing the process through.
Q: What do you like best about your career?
A: 1-800-DENTIST is always doing new things to improve the business, for example, we just revamped our website - so each day is different for me, whether it's a privacy issue or a contractual issue. It's never the same thing over and over again! I am able to learn about the business and provide counsel on some strategic decisions. I really enjoy that.
Q: On the flip side, what are your biggest challenges?
A: We have many different departments (marketing, sales, IT, member services, etc) with many different needs, and it can be a real challenge to juggle all the different projects at once!
Q: What are the ways in which Southwestern helped to prepare you for your career? Which courses and professors were the most important for you?
A: I was able to take some phenomenal classes which prepared me for real life practice. I took a Trial Advocacy class and my participation in the Moot Court program really helped me as a litigator. I also really benefited from the externships I was involved with. I participated in one at the Court of Appeals and also one at the District Attorney's Office. It was great to get school credit while getting a taste of the working environment.
Now I am able to use the externship office myself on the other side. I'm on my fourth extern now. The students who have participated in externships here are extremely bright and enthusiastic. The Externship Program has really developed since my first extern started. It's great to see the feedback and hands-on experience that the students are receiving.
Even when I was at my old firm, Dean Greener was instrumental in providing us with great candidates to work as law clerks, associates, or summer associates. Dean Greener would frequently send over gems from Southwestern as summer associates who we were later able to hire as full-time associates.
Q: What's your fondest law school memory?
A: I miss seeing all of my friends on a daily basis! As I was graduating, they had just completed the library. It's nice to see that the students now have such great facilities - a really good learning environment, a top-of-the-line gym, a beautiful library. So it's wonderful to see that Southwestern is making itself a top-tier law school.
Q: What advice would you give Southwestern students or recent graduates, especially those interested in joining the business world?
A: I know it sounds really general, but try to get as much experience as you can in different areas of the law. I've had some externs come here and say they want to do what I do and are taking only corporate and transactional classes; they discounted, perhaps, the trial advocacy class because they just wanted to work in-house. I think it makes for a much more well-rounded candidate if they've had both litigation and corporate experience. I would tell them to get as much experience course-wise and professionally. If you want to get into the business world, don't necessarily discount getting litigation experience.
Q: How has the litigation experience been helpful to you?
A: It gives you a perspective on everything from the consequences of a poorly drafted contractual provision to how much attorneys' fees will cost if you are involved in a trial.
Q: What do you like to do with your free time?
A: I like traveling, being outdoors, going to the beach, and just spending time with friends and family.
Q: What are the favorite places to which you have traveled?
A: We've been to lots of great places. We traveled to Thailand in 2006; that was just beautiful. The year before that, we traveled to Italy. They were such different places and cultures that it's hard to choose!