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Legally Speaking

The underappreciated role of university lawyer


If you want to kill an idea without being identified as the assassin, suggest that the legal department take a look at it.  – Scott Adams, Dilbert Gives You the Business

During a second interview for a job that turned out to be my first as a university lawyer, the dean at a university in the United Kingdom made it quite clear that, while he was all for legal review and evaluating risk, such inconvenient formalities shouldn’t stand in the way of a good deal. Such was my introduction to higher education law.

Happily, this inauspicious beginning turned out to have nothing in common with my future experiences as a university lawyer. Quite apart from being made to feel that I am a perpetual roadblock, the people I’m fortunate enough to work with every day have accepted the role of university lawyer as a valuable facilitator for their work.

It’s safe to say no one grows up wanting to be a university lawyer. Survey all the grade schoolers you can find and not one of these budding firemen or Google programmers will want to follow in my footsteps. Never mind grade schoolers, survey law students and the answers will be the same. No higher education law courses exist in Canadian law schools. Legal professional development organizations don’t offer university lawyer training. Most of the university lawyers I know had to make their way to their universities through serendipity. But once they’ve arrived, they almost always stay for a very long time.

So what makes a lawyer want to work at a University? I haven’t conducted any focus group research, but I have observed that university lawyers tend to be different than other lawyers in one crucial regard: they are comfortable with (and, in particularly advanced cases, thrive on) variety.

Rarely is a university legal position a lawyer’s first job right out of law school.  We tend to have diverse experiences, successes and failures, before finding the right fit for us at a university.  Some will have had private practice experience in corporate or employment law; others will have worked at in-house positions for government ministries or large corporations. Some will have navigated more than one of these settings and multiple areas of law. These multi-factored experiences provide a valuable foundation of practical legal knowledge for the prospective university lawyer. It will also assist in building relationships inside the university, with external legal providers, and with academic and business collaborators.

But there is nothing that can properly prepare one for the awe-inspiring, terror-inducing panoply of legal issues confronting a university.

To have any hope of even the smallest measure of success, the university lawyer must be a generalist at a very high level. Not currently a real-estate lawyer? Get ready to become one because the university is opening a new mixed-use building and the commercial tenants all need leases. Not only that, but the student union wants to hold a new end-of-term block party; a spin-out company wants to use the university’s logo on its marketing material; a donor has bequeathed her art collection to the university gallery; and the co-op program has questions about unpaid internships. Maintaining a drive to learn new things is a minimum requirement of the university lawyer which, given the scholarly setting, is entirely appropriate.

Gone are the days when every public dollar could be spent with little scrutiny. Also gone is the freedom for anyone on campus to pick up the phone to the university’s long-tenured, eye-wateringly expensive external counsel and have that bill paid with no questions asked. With no billable-hour targets, the university lawyer can be an effective cost-saver in a time of tight budgets. That being said, there is also no doubt that university lawyers will exist only so long as they are seen to be adding value to the university.

Universities are highly complex places with such a large scale of activity at any one time it is impossible to keep track of it all. Yet, for the reasons expressed above, I am confident that when these activities run into legal questions or problems, the university lawyer will be equal to the challenge. The ability to pivot between a multitude of issues has become second nature to them. Such a lawyer, who has spent time getting to know the needs of your department, can be a valuable addition to your project. I encourage everyone, if they have the need, to seek out their university lawyer and see what they’ve got. They’re ready.

This is the first instalment in a monthly series by Dr. Davis, corporate counsel at McMaster University, on universities and the law.

Brent Davis
Brent Davis, JD, LLM, is corporate counsel at McMaster University.
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  1. Monique Richer / November 11, 2015 at 13:32

    Extremely interesting and absolutely on target!

    Monique Richer, Pharm.D., M.A., L.L.B.
    Secretary General and Corporate Counsel
    Université Laval

  2. Christine Silversides / June 10, 2019 at 10:46

    I strongly believe this article should be re-run…it is excellent and we need more information out there about what university legal counsel can contribute to universities including strategic planning, risk control, cost control and service enhancement to name but a few.

  3. Christine Silversides / May 28, 2020 at 18:02

    Came back to read this again today. Still as great an article as the first time I read it back in 2015!
    Thanks, Brent, for capturing the role so well.

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