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Information on Higher Education Law

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The Office of General Counsel (OGC) represents American University and its agents within the course and scope of their employment or institutional representation. The resources listed here are to help guide you through some common legal issues that may arise while carrying out your duties. These resources are for informational purposes only and should not be viewed as legal advice.

The Practice of Higher Education Law

The field of higher education law encompasses the myriad legal matters affecting colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education hire attorneys to serve as in-house counsel and/or external counsel to offer the vital service of identifying, analyzing, resolving, and preventing a broad range of legal issues in a dynamic environment.

Characteristics of Institutions and Higher Education Law Clients

Higher education attorneys serve a variety of types of colleges and universities, including public and private two-year and four-year institutions of higher education, from small liberal arts colleges to large research universities. They include community colleges, church-related institutions, and institutions that are dedicated to specialized subject matter, such as art and music institutes, or that serve specific populations, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's) and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI's). Whether serving as in-house counsel or outside counsel, higher education attorneys work with a variety of constituencies at the institution, including boards, presidents, provosts, administrative vice presidents, senior administrators, deans, department heads, and faculty. Campus attorneys are involved with issues such as governance, employment and human resources, student affairs, campus security, athletics, financial and business affairs, risk management, government and community relations, contracts, intellectual property, and various forms of dispute resolution. Higher education law attorneys are involved with virtually every part of the institution since legal matters can affect each.

Characteristics of Higher Education Law Attorneys

Higher education attorneys ideally possess excellent judgment, critical thinking, and strong writing and reasoning skills. They have high ethical standards, discretion, and the ability to forge consensus out of the sometimes discordant views of various institutional interests. They model the values of collegiality and civility in all of their communications and actions. They are able to handle multiple matters simultaneously, and maintain a professional and thoughtful demeanor, including objectivity and detachment when needed. They work with an intellectually stimulating and engaging group of institutional colleagues who have high expectations of their legal counsel. Most of all, they have a strong and visible commitment to the institution's goals of learning, new ideas and solving society's problems. Some colleges employ a single attorney or rely solely on outside counsel for their institutional representation. Other institutions, typically larger or more complex ones, have multiple attorneys serving as in-house counsel, with as many as 10-15 attorneys at a large research university. In-house counsel are often supplemented with external counsel who have particular expertise. Higher education attorneys manage institutional compliance with federal, state, and local laws to determine methods to avoid potential legal liability. They practice preventive law to educate clients on campus about legal issues so that conflicts can be handled in a civil and collegial manner before the legal issues even arise or can be mediated before they become serious. They often participate in the representation of clients in formal dispute resolution, including litigation, arbitration, grievances, administrative hearings, and other adversarial proceedings.

Areas of Legal Practice

Many university attorneys function as "generalists," handling matters in multiple areas of law. University attorneys may seek assistance from outside counsel in specialty areas, while some universities hire "specialists" to focus on specific areas of law. In their interaction with institutional clients, higher education attorneys provide counsel on a wide variety of issues, encompassing many areas of legal expertise. Higher education attorneys may also need to familiarize themselves with a number of federal laws and regulations unique to higher education. The types of legal issues a university attorney might encounter include:

  • Administrative Law
  • Immigration
  • Animal Law
  • Intellectual Property
  • Athletics and Sports
  • Labor Relations
  • Business, Finance, and Contract
  • Lobbying and Legislative Affairs
  • Civil Rights
  • Litigation
  • Computer and Internet Law
  • Real Property Acquisition, Development, and Zoning
  • Constitutional Law
  • Research and Technology Transfer
  • Development and Fundraising
  • Statutory and Regulatory Compliance
  • Employment
  • Student Admissions, Housing, Discipline, and Organizations
  • Environmental Law
  • Taxation
  • Governance
  • Torts
  • Health Sciences

Where Higher Education Attorneys Practice

Higher education law attorneys practice in a variety of locations, both on campus and off. While most work on campus or in private law offices, many are in system offices or in state attorneys general offices. In addition to positions in the OGC's office, attorneys can be employed in other offices of the university, including human resources, compliance, equal opportunity, student affairs, contracting, risk management and research.