Everyone has their way of giving back, and this is my way.”
Managing Member, Stephens & Baugh LLC,
"To whom much is given, much is required" is the saying that shapes Edna Baugh's calendar. She sits on boards—often heading them—for a host of urban New Jersey organizations including legal services, a community college, and Girl Scouts, many of them gasping for breath in today's economy. "It's a lot of hard work, and sometimes it's frustrating because there's so much to accomplish," she says. "But everyone has their way of giving back, and this is my way."
One of her give-backs is to Vermont Law School: she was the first African American woman to earn a JD there and is now vice president of the alumni association. She joins the board of trustees in 2010. "VLS accepted me, gave me a scholarship, and was very welcoming. I learned how to trust myself—and that by applying myself, I could accomplish more than I had thought possible."
Neither of her parents had finished high school, and "they always assumed I would get a college education," she says. Hanging around the house where her father worked as a chauffeur and her mother as a housekeeper, she found her career focus at age seven. "The father in the home where my parents worked often talked to me about his career as a lawyer. I decided that's what I wanted to be, so I could help people like he did."
She chose Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, even though her guidance counselor at her East Orange high school had gently discouraged her. "It was the only place I applied—doing well there became my challenge, and I was determined," she recalls. She earned a BA in economics, but "took a detour" for a while, trying out nursing school and working as an army clerk. Then she became a legal secretary and paralegal, and at age 30, encouraged by a VLS alumnus, she applied and was accepted with a scholarship to Vermont Law School. She was more worried about fitting in with the other students because of her age than her race, but found in Vermont that neither was a problem. "The place, the people, the pace—VLS is a unique experience that can't be duplicated anyplace else in the country, or in the world, for that matter," she says. "I was stimulated, I was excited-I was now doing what I had wanted to do." In her time at VLS, she served on the curriculum committee and as a yearbook editor in addition to the work-study job she held.
On graduation day, when the time came to give out the Alumni Association Award, which honors one student each year for his or her contribution to the Vermont Law School Community, "I was sitting in the audience whispering to the person next to me—we were trying to guess who would get the award—and then all of a sudden I hear my name. I'm like, ‘Me?!’ I was stunned, excited, thrilled and honored, in that order!"
After law school, she worked for a New Jersey law firm doing real estate transactions, then came back to the City of East Orange—her home town—in 1986 as assistant counsel. Her duties included representing the tax collector and tax assessor in court, and that expertise carried her to a private firm in 1992. In 2000, she and her former East Orange boss joined forces to start Stephens & Baugh, LLC, in Maplewood, New Jersey, where she specializes in real estate property tax appeals and transactional real estate. "I hope that one day we become the largest minority law firm in New Jersey-another lofty goal!" she says.
She also works as the assistant director for clinic administration for Rutgers School of Law in Newark, overseeing activities in clinics that deal with civil, criminal, tax, child advocacy, and community law. She makes sure processes and systems are in place to make the clinics run smoothly and mentors law students. "It's gratifying to see the change in them over the semester, as their confidence increases along with their ability to deal with clients."
She headed for several years the Essex-Hudson Girl Scout Council—she credits her childhood scouting with training her in leadership—and is past president of the Garden State Bar Association, an African-American organization. She also sits on the New Jersey Supreme Court Disciplinary Review Board, the Essex-Newark Legal Services Board, and chairs the Essex County College Foundation Board, which raises scholarship funds.
She lives in the century-old Colonial house in East Orange that she grew up in. In her free time, she takes Caribbean cruises and vacations on the Jersey Shore. She enjoys reading fiction and going to movies, but, she sighs, "Every time I'm off a board and think I'll have free time, something else comes in to fill the spot!"