Institutions of higher education are unique environments where diverse cultures come together and clash, technology flourishes and falters, and "business as usual" often looks a lot like any other business and yet distinctive in its own right. From the Clery Act and Title IX to First Amendment rights and unionization, top lawyers within higher education have to be nimble and responsive to the innumerable regulations and legal challenges that arise from all angles.
In Major, Lindsey & Africa's recent higher education event in partnership with Ogletree Deakins, my colleague Heather Fine and I explored what it takes to lead the legal function within a college or university. Through our discussion led by Paul Lancaster Adams, it became clear that a general counsel must possess the skills and personality to respond appropriately to pressure and deal with the unexpected. Key attributes of leaders in higher education often start with a certain degree of pedigree and a commitment to public service. Lawyers who have a history of government experience do well leading in higher education as do those with significant experience in healthcare when an institution has an associated medical school or health system. Others who have spent a part of their legal career in higher education are also in demand, but not all institutions require this background. Depending on the needs of the institution, and the philosophy of its leadership at any given time, a strong litigator or transactional attorney may be desired. The experience you have gained throughout your career will play an integral part in potentially landing you the general counsel role at a college or university.
It is the soft skills that are often the most critical component of a true leader in higher education. Those personality traits are what will ultimately secure you the job—or the lack of them could be your downfall. A general counsel needs to be a leader demonstrating high ethical standards, exquisite judgment and strong reasoning skills. He or she must be able to navigate a matrixed organization, demonstrating a curiosity, understanding and diplomacy toward individuals and their causes. Moreover, the cultural match between a candidate for a leadership role in higher education and the institution itself are absolutely essential.
Above all, to work in a higher education environment, you need to be passionate about people and the work. Colleges and universities are people-focused and you must manage a number of different constituencies in a savvy, yet respectful, manner. A general counsel will be expected to address the needs and demands of the students, staff, parents, administration, trustees/boards, the public and more. You are going to have to consider free speech situations—from protests to self-expression—behavioral misconduct—ranging from damage of property to hate crimes—lawsuits, employment issues, privacy of personal information and much more. If you join a college or university that has a well-publicized athletics program, then any issue concerning its "revenue sports" is very likely to be on the proverbial front page of the newspaper. If you are dedicated to the greater good of the institution and your constituency, then you will gladly accept the challenge of navigating these choppy waters and relish the fact that the many hours and stresses that go along with the job are actually making a real difference in the public square.
Higher education institutions are a 24/7 environment that not everyone is prepared to navigate. If you think you want to become a general counsel in this industry, talk to those who are currently working at universities and colleges across the country to really grasp what the role entails. Connecting with others in higher education will be your first networking step that will demonstrate your interest in high education opportunities that arise and will help you secure a role. Leading the legal function at an institution of higher education is a balancing act requiring a strong lawyer who is discerning, open minded, people-oriented and ready for a challenge.
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Michael Sachs is a Partner in the Chicago/Midwest In-House Practice Group of Major, Lindsey & Africa. He specializes in placing attorneys at all levels—from junior counsel to general counsel—in corporate and university legal departments.
Heather Fine is a Managing Director in our Chicago In-House Practice Group, specializing in placing attorneys in corporate legal departments in a variety of industries.