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Law Schools Offering More Courses For In-House Career

Publication Date: 
October 19, 2012
Corporate Counsel
Sue Reisinger


Professor Joe Grundfest and Lecturer Daniel Cooperman who teach the Stanford Law School course "The Role of the Modern General Counsel" spoke with Corporate Counsel's Sue Reisinger on the evolution of the GC role. 

Tears streamed down the cheeks of Mark Belnick, the former general counsel of Tyco International, as he described to Stanford University students what it was like to leave a successful private practice, become a GC for the first time, and then find himself caught up in a major accounting scandal. The emotional moment came as Belnick recalled the pressure when both his lawyer and his wife tried to persuade him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor in order to escape felony charges and a possible 25-year prison sentence. He refused the deal and was vindicated in July 2004, when a jury found him not guilty.

For Belnick, memories of the painful ethical dilemmas he navigated as GC remain all too vivid. And the Stanford law and business students witnessed his anguish up close as part of a class exploring "the role of the modern general counsel." It is taught by Daniel Cooperman, the retired Apple Inc. general counsel, along with former AIG International Group Inc. GC Stasia Kelly, who is now co–managing partner at DLA Piper, and Stanford law professor Joseph Grundfest. "The general counsel today is the chief ethicist in most companies," Cooperman says, "and that's a powerful and daunting role. We ask the students: 'What could you have done, were you in the GC chair?'"

Stanford isn't alone in bringing the real world of corporate law into the classroom, though most schools aren't aiming for the emotion and drama that Belnick brought with him when he visited Cooperman's class two years ago. The goals of most are pragmatic: Law schools are realizing that students need more experience-based learning. That's especially true for those who plan to be in-house counsel, because the role has changed so drastically in the past decade, under the influence of powerful laws like Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank.

"I've seen the evolution in the GC role," Cooperman says, "and it is striking and startling. It's imperative that law schools address this."

Schools are beginning to make their own striking changes. While approaches vary from campus to campus, all stress problem solving and practical experience over case law and theory. There are, for example, single classes that concentrate on the GC's role and duties, as Cooperman's does. At Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law, Steven Burkhart, GC at the Bic Corporation in Shelton, Connecticut, taught a spring course on "in-house counsel practice." Burkhart, like Cooperman, brings in other in-house counsel to help present real-world problems for the class to solve. "In my day," Burkhart says about offering practical experience, "the size of a school's law library was a critical factor in grading your law education. Now, what can be more irrelevant?"