Lawyers in the Lead as College Presidents

By Dennis Barden and Werner Boel

Carleton, Colgate, Johns Hopkins, Minnesota, Oberlin, Oregon, Princeton, Syracuse, Tulane, Virginia . . . what these schools have in common besides academic excellence is being led by presidents who were trained as lawyers. In fact, more and more presidencies – WittKieffer’s database counts more than 150 – are filled by leaders with law in their backgrounds.

Trend Tracking

The number of lawyer-presidents has more than doubled in each of the last three decades and will continue to grow, notes Patricia Salkin, senior vice president for academic affairs for the Touro College & University System. What is sparking this trend? We were both asked this question recently by Lyle Moran for a feature article in the American Bar Association Journal. Reasons that we and other experts cite include the following.

  • Laws and regulations surrounding the governing of institutions today have multiplied in complexity. Title IX, affirmative action, mergers and acquisitions, and intellectual property are just a few pertinent topics that lawyer-presidents are skilled to address.
  • Institutional decision-making, especially in the COVID-19 era, is made against a backdrop of potential risks and liabilities. Operating a university is constantly threatened by the possibility of litigation, making knowledge of the law extremely valuable for a campus leader.
  • Presidents must navigate a heightened commitment to social justice combined with a new level of activism and demands for positive change regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. This requires a level of diplomacy and effective negotiating skills which define the core skills of a lawyer leader.
  • Institutional lawyers are among the relatively few individuals who engage with stakeholders, both administrative and academic, across the university. This grooms them for the presidential role. “A lot of people have expertise, but they don’t necessarily have that ability to translate and communicate with people who have very different types of expertise,” James Madison University president Jonathan Alger told ABA Journal’s Moran.
  • Lawyers-turned-presidents may just have the right temperament for the job. Trained legal professionals are pragmatic, methodical thinkers who remain calm and thrive in communities with widely divergent opinions (i.e., any college or university). Lawyers have traditionally been good politicians, and there may be no one better prepared to navigate campus politics. Furthermore, we believe that successful lawyers have strong emotional intelligence. They understand the human component that is so critical to lead in higher education today.

Some lawyer-presidents come from outside the academy and have distinguished themselves in the public or private sector. Within an institution, there are two logical stepping stones on which lawyers often tread on their way to the presidency.

General Counsel: Especially today, GCs work very closely with college and university boards. They know what it’s like to interact productively with trustees and respect the solemnity of shared governance. Boards – who drive presidential hiring processes – have a comfort level with their own General Counsel and can see this individual, or other GCs who present themselves as presidential candidates, fitting into the job nicely.

Law Dean: Law schools in the current economic environment have become even more semi-autonomous academic units than was the case historically and must optimize their product, nurture their brands, generate their own revenue and please ever-demanding stakeholders on issues ranging from diversity to curricular change to student outcomes and employability to strategic partnerships. As Werner told Moran for his article, “If you can manage a cantankerous law faculty, you can pretty much do anything in the world.”

What makes a lawyer a good leader in academia? We would like to know your opinion.

Werner Boel is a senior partner and leader of WittKieffer’s Legal and Compliance Practice. Dennis Barden, now retired, was a senior partner in WittKieffer’s Education Practice.