Higher education has become an increasingly litigious environment in recent years. You needn’t look any further than recent Chronicle of Higher Education headlines to understand why: “Michigan State’s Ex-President, Who Faces Criminal Charges, Will Retire with a $2.5 Million Payout,” “U. of Southern California Doctor Is Accused of Sexually Abusing 48 Patients,” “Strikes at Colleges Are at a 7-Year High as Unions Rebound” and “Higher-Ed Groups Are Warning Against ‘Surveillance’ of Chinese Academics. On Some Campuses, That’s Already Begun” are but a few examples of the myriad issues institutions face. This is on top of routine, day-to-day legal matters such as contracts, employment agreements, and regulatory and Title IX compliance work that have long been part and parcel of running any organization.
Almost every college and university today has outside legal counsel, private law firms they can call on to assist in both routine and extraordinary matters. But as legal issues increase, academic institutions are starting to shift away from relying solely on external counsels—who, by virtue of their third-party status, tend to be more reactive than proactive—and toward hiring a general counsel (GC) who can handle the bulk of legal needs internally, while turning to external counsel for assistance as needed.
Large research universities have long had GCs. Recently, however, we have seen a spike in top liberal arts colleges starting to consider or actively creating this new role.