Dream job? Maybe. Necessary resource? Definitely.

January 3, 2013, 9:04 am

Since the time I started my job as an administrator, I have had more than my fair share of conversations with the university counsel. Along with the wonderful folks in Human Resources, the folks in the University Counsel’s office have helped to address all kinds of unexpected issues that arise in my new administrative life.

My experience with university legal counsel has been complicated, dating back to my time as a graduate student. In those days, I was upset about some programmatic decision the administrators in my program were trying to implement–one that I felt amounted to exploitation of the graduate students. I had heard that the university had a legal clinic that helped students with their legal concerns. Of course, I didn’t understand that the law school’s legal clinic was more interested in helping students deal with their landlords, and, more importantly, that the “university counsel” and the “university legal clinic” were not the same thing. So, I contacted the university counsel to ask for advice and information about dealing with the administrators about this issue. After clearing up my naive misunderstandings, explaining that the university counsel works for–wait for it–the university, and sending me on my way, the counsel actually wound up calling the department head and telling them that their plan actually was problematic.  As a result, the department changed the plan. (And yes, I love being able to write that I was that astute about university issues as a grad student.) So, while the university counsel blew me off in person, my contact with them did address the issue, in a roundabout way.

I then participated in a leadership development program at one of my universities, and part of that was a presentation by a lawyer from the university counsel’s office about their role in the university. This person was as negative about faculty as anyone I have ever heard; as far as she was concerned, we were all either lazy, dealing with drug problems, molesting students or staff, or otherwise not contributing to the mission and goals of the university and/or the state. Of course, that was only matched by the many problems presented by students and staff. I left the training disgusted, and I couldn’t really imagine how the university counsel might actually intervene to support faculty members, students, or staff. And I wondered why this person worked at the university at all, if s/he hated us so much. I have since learned that s/he had little contact with any faculty outside of the negative context, so hir messed up attitude made a little more sense. That said, some perspective might have been helpful to the job.

Later I attended a national professional development training that made me reconsider my negative feelings about the role of university counsel. Okay, so part of that change may be that I developed a little girl crush on the presenter, Tina Gunsalus (aka C.K. Gunsalus), author of “The College Administrator’s Survival Guide.” Gunsalus served as university counsel before her current gig as Director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics, and her advice to administrators, especially about management and legal issues, is helpful and clear. And she actually seems to like and respect faculty, even those who present some difficulty. After listening to her describe how she approached her consulting role with administrators, I thought I might enjoy working in that role in the university.

The National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA) is clear that most university attorneys are generalists. They offer the following long list of potential legal issues that university attorneys might encounter:

• Administrative Law
• Animal Law
• Athletics & Sports
• Business, Finance & Contracts
• Civil Rights
• Computer & Internet Law
• Constitutional Law
• Development & Fundraising
• Employment
• Environmental Law
• Governance
• Health Sciences
• Immigration
• Intellectual Property
• Labor Relations
• Lobbying and Legislative Affairs
• Litigation
• Real Property Acquisition,
Development & Zoning
• Research & Technology Transfer
• Statutory & Regulatory Compliance
• Student Admissions, Housing,
Discipline and Organizations
• Taxation
• Torts

Looks like they shouldn’t be skipping any classes in their law school careers.

This breadth of need is one reason why some schools are turning to outside firms to act as legal counsel; it is difficult to find the few qualified folks who can handle all of these topics. That said, the university setting is unique enough that I think it pays to have an internal team, even if they sometimes have to get outside support. Plus, as much as administrators come to rely on calls to legal counsel for advice, it is well worth it for the university to pay salaries rather than consulting fees.

Alas, such a job is likely not in my future, as the gf long ago laid down the “no more degrees for you” rule, and I would have to attend law school to create a new career as university counsel. Instead, I will learn from the university counsel every time I interact with them about a personnel, student, or policy issue that arises. And perhaps I can get Ms. Gunsalus to come do a talk at my school sometime soon. Sigh.


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