Who Invited the Lawyer? A Qualitative Multiple Case Study Exploring the Role, Qualifications, and Relationships of Chief University Attorneys



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In response to universities’ growing risk profiles, leaders are expanding the number and role of their in-house lawyers. Once narrowly tasked only with resolving live legal disputes, many chief university attorneys (CUAs) now field calls from decision makers on all manner of university priorities—legal, legal-adjacent, and otherwise. Previous literature exploring the role, qualifications, and relationships of these increasingly influential CUAs is limited in quantity, quality, and scope. Therefore, this three-study project employs a qualitative research design and multiple case study strategy to consider the cases of six incumbents in exploring: (1) What is the modern role of CUAs? (2) Who are the lawyers fulfilling this executive role within the academy? And (3) how do CUAs engage and exercise influence with university leaders and decision makers? The findings of this project’s first study reveal the role of CUA is composed of three functions: (1) preeminent, efficient lawyering, (2) skillful management of the university’s legal enterprise, and (3) influential executive leadership. Further, CUAs’ opportunity to exercise executive and extra-legal influence is accrued by performing the complex role of CUA well, then enhanced by building and maintaining high-quality professional relationships with university executives and decision makers. These themes proffer a new conceptual framework depicting CUAs’ three contemporaneous functions as lawyers, managers, and executives and identifying the periodic actions required of CUAs to fulfill each function. The second study’s findings identify 15 discrete CUA role qualifications distributed among four categories: (1) technical skills and competencies, (2) dispositional qualities, (3) relational abilities, and (4) executive capacities. The findings further reveal that CUAs’ requisite executive capacities serve as conduits for exercising influence. A new conceptual framework is proposed that depicts the 15 qualifications of CUAs and their relationship to CUAs’ exercise of executive influence. The final study’s findings first establish that high-quality relationships are essential for CUAs’ role performance, but clarifies such relationships are not a substitute for high-quality lawyering. Next, this study reveals CUAs’ high-quality relationships are characterized by trust and credibility. Finally, the findings present a conceptual four-step process by which CUAs may develop high-quality relationships sufficient to perform their modern role and exercise influence with their executive peers and among senior university decision makers. Collectively, this project’s findings proffer answers to questions regarding the what, who, and how of modern CUAs.

Embargo status: Restricted until 01/2027. To request the author grant access, click on the PDF link to the left.



University, Organizational behavior, General counsel, Law, Attorney, Higher education