Walking with the Law

As you might remember, I have a goal to move thirty minutes every day. Occasionally, I do laps around the house for half an hour, but my preference is to walk outside around the neighborhood. At this time of year, that means I have to get up early enough to beat the sun. I don’t do the getting up part well, but once I’m up and going, I really enjoy it. And like most exercise, the best part is when I’m done. I also enjoy seeing the deer, the occasional hawk, and once recently, a fox. There are also the regular walkers, some with their puppies, to nod to which is a pleasant part of the morning. But there’s an extra benefit to a morning walk. It helps with my writing. (It helps with all kinds of creativity and problem solving.) During this morning’s walk, I started out wondering what I might write about today and by the end of the walk, I had an idea. There’s one little problem, I have no idea where the train of thought began that ended in this idea. So, if this feels a bit out of the blue, I understand. I don’t know why I came up with this idea.

For some reason, I started thinking about working with lawyers. I didn’t work with lawyers in my earliest jobs, but when I started working in conduct at UT-Austin all that changed. There, when a student said, “I’m going to call my lawyer”, they often did. And with some of the cases we had students absolutely should have called their lawyers.

When I was working there in the mid-1980s, individual campuses in the UT System did not have their own lawyers. All of the lawyers we worked with were located downtown at the System office. That meant all they did was practice law. When they gave us answers to our questions or provided us advice on policy, it was a legal answer. Then it was up to various administrators to decide what to do with the answers we were given.

When I left UT-Austin and moved to SMU, the situation changed. There we had an office of legal affairs on campus. The advantage was that they knew a lot about the details of various programs on campus and we didn’t have to help them understand the underlying purposes of what we were doing nearly as often. But there was a definite downside. The General Counsel for the campus was also a vice president. That meant his role was more than legal, it involved policy and as a vice president he was also expected to understand the public relations implications in the issues. It meant his opinions were not based solely on the legal issues but law mixed with other considerations. It created a different dynamic in discussions with the lawyers because, by the time I had left there, I had reached the conclusion that a General Counsel with multiple roles and responsibilities was not the best model.

Several years later, when I returned to the UT System, every campus had on campus attorneys and it changed the dynamic between attorneys and administrators. Added to that was the change in the compliance and risk management processes on campus. It’s not that the attorneys give poor advice, but it becomes important for administrators to be smart consumers of legal advice and good advocates for programs that are perfectly legal but unusual in some way. It has always been important for university administrators to make good educational decisions based on legal advice, but if your attorneys are mixing law with other, important, but different considerations, it’s important to understand that as you’re considering how to use their advice.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to write the summary chapter for a volume of New Directions for Institutional Research. The primary message of my chapter was to consider campus lawyers as partners rather than people to run from or to fight with. It’s more helpful to consult with attorneys at the start of a new program or when a problem lands on your doorstop rather than needing them to help after things have gone wrong. I ended that chapter with a quote from Peter Lake, that I’ll share here. “The message is simple: Use law and legislation (or, I would add, any other considerations) to manage higher education environments, but be careful not to allow law and legislation to supplant good… practice.”

I hope this helps you think about how you use your lawyers’ advice and counsel. Or perhaps it will help you get up and walk early in the morning to sort out a problem or task you want to solve before you need a lawyer.

Take care,


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