One year ago Dena DeNooyer Stroh traded a partnership in a boutique law firm for a job as the top lawyer at an energy company. "I came to a crossroads of ‘do I stay at the pinnacle of litigation, a woman partner at a trial boutique or do I try this, a female general counsel of an oil and gas company?’" DeNooyer Stroh says. With a one-year anniversary this month, does she think it was a good decision? "Absolutely," she says. "It’s been a great year."

DeNooyer Stroh is the general counsel and corporate secretary of Murchison Oil & Gas Inc., a privately held company based in Plano. Murchison was one of DeNooyer Stroh’s clients when she was a partner in Gruber Hurst Johansen Hail Shank in Dallas. Murchison was planning to accelerate its growth and decided it needed a fulltime general counsel, she says. "We’re trying to triple or quadruple the value of the company in the next five years," DeNooyer Stroh says. Murchison is involved in the acquisition, exploration, development and production of oil and gas resources in the U.S., she says. DeNooyer Stroh says she was attracted to the in-house job because it was a new challenge and would take less time away from her husband and two children. She says it’s also nice not to be tracking her time in six-minute increments. "I’m building relationships with the people I’m working with and there’s no downside," she says. "But in a firm, the downside would be that you are not billing."

She is the legal department’s sole in-house lawyer and handles all legal matters including contracts, corporate governance, human resources, real estate and regulatory issues. "Literally, part of my job is to stay up with things that could affect us," she says. "I need to know if the labor department has new regulations or if the Bureau of Land Management is considering a new rule about future drilling on federal leases."

She uses outside counsel for matters requiring specialty expertise, such as tax or intellectual property, or when she doesn’t have time to get to them herself. "When an issue comes up I have about a two-hour window before being pulled off onto something else," she says.

DeNooyer Stroh grew up in Dallas. "I was an army brat," she says. "We moved to Dallas when I was 12, so pretty much I think I’m from Dallas." Both of her parents are lawyers and retired from the U.S. Army as colonels. Her father Leroy "Lee" DeNooyer is an environmental and regulatory civilian lawyer for the U.S. at Fort Hood and her mother, Lynn DeNooyer, is a solo family lawyer in Harker Heights.

"I did not want to be a lawyer; no way, no how," she says. But when she was looking for summer jobs during college, her father suggested she apply to firms listed in the Martindale-Hubbell directory. She took his advice and after her first year at Yale University she worked as a clerk in the real estate section of Vinson & Elkins in Dallas. "I worked with everybody; partners, associates, summer associates, paralegals and secretaries," she says. "I helped them with closings. I loved it." She graduated from Yale in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and graduated from Southern Methodist University [now Dedman] School of Law in 1999. After law school she worked as a clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Thad Heartfield of the Eastern District of Texas in Beaumont. In 2001, she joined Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal in Dallas, where she had been a summer associate during law school. "That was a fantastic firm to work with," she says. "Everyone is super smart."

DeNooyer Stroh was with Carrington, Coleman in Dallas for nine years. In 2009, as a first-year partner working primarily on appellate matters, she decided she wanted more courtroom time. She knew trial lawyer Michael Hurst because he had been chairman of the Dallas Association of Young Lawyers Foundation Fellows in 2009 while she was the organization’s president. She joined his firm — then Gruber Hurst Johansen Hail — as a partner and worked with him for for two years before taking the job with Murchison.

"I almost cried when she told me she was going in-house with one of our clients," Hurst says. "I sure miss her. I begged her to stay." Hurst says he offered to make her schedule more flexible to allow more family time but that she was so passionate about her clients and cases she continued to work long hours. "Dena’s analytical skills are about as solid as anyone I’ve worked with," Hurst says. He states that her ability to dissect a problem and consider various solutions is useful in her current job. "As a legal department of one, which she is, analytical skills are probably of paramount importance," he says.

Elizabeth Schartz is a labor and employment partner in the Dallas office of Thompson & Knight. She first worked with DeNooyer Stroh in 2007 when they were each handling law suits for a mutual client. "She was an associate [at Carrington, Coleman] at the time and I remember thinking I was surprised to find out how young an attorney she was because she was so poised and confident," Schartz says.

Murchison has been a Thompson & Knight client for more than a decade and so Schartz has had a chance to work again with DeNooyer Stroh. "She is not afraid to say ‘I do not know about this area; I’m not sure what we should do here; what do you think?’, " Schartz says. "As you can imagine, she gets to deal in what has traditionally been a male dominated environment with strong personalities," Schartz says. "She is absolutely a match for that. Part of that is her remarkably calm and cool demeanor."

Best Practices: Timeliness and Responsiveness

This month Dena DeNooyer Stroh completes her first year as general counsel and corporate secretary of Plano-based Murchison Oil and Gas Inc. DeNooyer Stroh says that if she were to return to being an outside counsel, she would shorten her response time to clients.

Texas Lawyer research editor Jeanne Graham emailed DeNooyer Stroh some questions about best practices. Her answers are below, edited for length and style.

Texas Lawyer: What criteria do you consider most important when selecting outside counsel?

Dena DeNooyer Stroh: Expertise, responsiveness, and timeliness.

TL: What can outside counsel do to perform beyond your expectations?

DeNooyer Stroh: Do not merely tell me that there is a problem, have suggestions for a solution.

TL: If you ever went back to being outside counsel, what would you do differently?

DeNooyer Stroh: I always had a personal rule of responding to all clients within 24 hours; if I went back to being outside counsel, I would shorten this to two hours during business hours.

TL: What one thing from your previous work experience is helping you most on the job today, and why?

DeNooyer Stroh: Multitasking and expecting the unexpected. Just as the unexpected comes up in litigation, I often do not know what a day will bring.

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