Magazine article The Presidency

Lean on Me: Using Your General Counsel Effectively

Magazine article The Presidency

Lean on Me: Using Your General Counsel Effectively

Article excerpt

University counsel often plays a behind-the-scenes role integral to providing a smoothly running institution and managing risks. The general counsel can also provide important support for all areas of college or university leadership. Even more than other areas of legal specialization, higher education law requires practitioners to master a large volume of substantive law. Every lawyer who represents a college or university develops a working knowledge of the statutes, regulations, and court decisions that are unique to the field and that form its foundation, and also has a keen understanding of the specific institution that she represents. Because of this specialized expertise, general counsel can and should be utilized as a key leader on campus for a wide range of issues, and should be brought in early and often to address the legal needs of the campus community.

Benefits of In-House Counsel

While not every college or university chooses to have in-house counsel instead of relying on outside counsel for legal needs, there are at least five significant benefits to retaining inhouse legal counsel, as outlined below. Campus lawyers have many duties in common, though the institutions they represent vary enormously in size, mission, structure, organization, and culture. A lawyer dedicated to your campus will best understand that mission and your needs.

* Availability on campus. In-house lawyers are only a short stroll away from their principal clients. They can be summoned or consulted quickly when necessary. They interact with their clients over meals, at social occasions, at sporting events, and in a variety of other settings and circumstances that foster cohesion. Because they have only one client-the institution-they never (or rarely) are unavailable due to conflicting professional obligations.

* Familiarity with higher education legal issues. As with in-house counsel anywhere, a lawyer who provides services for only one client develops a deeper, more sophisticated knowledge of pertinent law than a practitioner in private practice whose exposure to the needs of a particular client may be more episodic. The in-house lawyer also has good instincts about institutional priorities.

* Institutional memory and understanding of internal politics. Working closely with the college and its senior managers, an in-house college or university lawyer inevitably develops sensitivity to the client's idiosyncrasies-its personalities, organizational quirks, history, and culture-in a way and to an extent that an occasional or even regular visitor could never do.

* Cost savings. These can be substantial, particularly when factoring in the longterm savings associated with effective preventive counseling. Assume a campus lawyer works 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. That would be 2,000 hours of work in a given year. If the campus lawyer were paid $120,000, earned another $30,000 in benefits, employed an assistant ($40,000 plus $10,000 in benefits, or $50,000), and used phones, stationery, computers, utilities, postage, and office space ($50,000), then the total cost of that lawyer would be about $250,000 a year. That equates to about $125 an hour for the lawyer's time-which is considerably less than what a law firm might charge for the equivalent legal effort.

* Prepayment. This cryptic term encapsulates what many people see as the principal advantage of having an in-house lawyer. The cost of the in-house legal office is incorporated into the institutional budget and fixed in advance. Clients who use the services of the in-house legal office for particular matters typically are not charged for those services. …

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