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Attorney finds his niche in public agencies

Daniel Graff sits in his office at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in Madison. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Daniel Graff was interested in working in the private sector after law school, but, as he said, it “didn’t take him up on the offer.” Instead, Graff found his way into the public side of law, working 17 years for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources before joining the state Department of Transportation in July.

As an attorney in WisDOT’s Office of General Counsel, Graff works with six other lawyers under two supervisors to handle a variety of agency concerns, including contract review and administrative hearings.

Wisconsin Law Journal: What do you consider to be your most important role as in-house counsel?
Daniel Graff: I’m part of a team. I can’t say I’m indispensable in one thing, but what I can do … I can do to the best of my ability. Maybe what I bring that’s my unique slant, since I’m fairly new, is I’ll ask questions people haven’t thought of before.

WLJ: What projects are you working on right now?
Graff: We just finished putting together an intergovernmental master agreement for an extension of the Hank Aaron Trail. It’s a Department of Natural Resources trail but the Department of Transportation will supervise construction for it. So we’ve got private, city and county partners to negotiate with.

WLJ: Does the agency hire outside counsel?
Graff: Generally we handle things within our office, but if we do need outside counsel, that’s for our supervisors to determine. We work with the state Attorney General’s Office quite a bit. They, in some ways, are our outside counsel. They represent us.

WLJ: What are some of the challenges of working in-house for a government agency?
Graff: My client, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, has about 3,500 employees. There are so many employees that you have to parcel out the interactions and be careful of getting involved. It’s harder to work with agency staff clients one-on-one because there’s so many of them. We generally have to work through their supervisors to keep it manageable.

WLJ: What piece of advice would you give to a lawyer considering going in-house?
Graff: My advice to a lawyer considering in-house counsel is: it will be a good fit if you can work in a larger structure with broad, ongoing relationships and an eye to the long term of your client organization. In-house counsel do need to represent our clients and win at litigation at times, but also need to think about the long-term effects of our advice and representation and often making or preserving long-term relationships. A good fit and comfort level between you and the organization you work in is a must.


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