It may sound like a major transition to leave an in-house job at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for a GC position at Vanderbilt University, but Audrey Anderson sees a lot of overlap between the two. She spent the last three and a half years as deputy general counsel for the federal agency and will take over as the Nashville school’s top lawyer March 11. In both law departments, lawyers have an opportunity to “get united behind a mission,” says Anderson, “something that’s broader than just the bottom line for shareholders.”
She has split her two decades as a legal eagle between government work and private practice. Before joining DHS, Anderson spent 17 years as a litigator in the Washington, D.C.-based firm Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells).
Anderson says that while her time at the firm taught her how to be a careful, thorough lawyer, working at DHS showed her that she had the ability to advise clients on subject matters outside of her own expertise. “When I arrived at DHS, I knew very little about the substantive areas of law that I had to advise on,” she says. Anderson quickly learned to extract information from the true experts and translate that into actionable advice for her department leaders.
“I think that skill is something that will be very useful for me at Vanderbilt, because the university and its medical center have such a wide variety of things that we have to advise on,” says the new GC. “There’s no way that one person could be a subject matter expert in all of the different areas where advice is required.”
Anderson does have some experience with higher education: At Hogan, she represented public school districts and worked closely with lawyers whose clients included colleges and universities. Anderson also taught appellate advocacy as an adjunct professor at American University’s Washington College of Law from 2006 to 2007.
Founded in 1873 by philanthropist “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, the private Vanderbilt University has grown into a complex institution that enrolls approximately 12,000 students annually. Anderson replaces David Williams II, who will stay on at the university as full-time athletics director and vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs.
As general counsel, Anderson will advise Vanderbilt on all legal issues, including contracts, IP, taxation, business matters, health care law, litigation, and personnel issues.
The new legal chief will oversee 12 lawyers at Vanderbilt. Anderson says she is a better boss after having served at DHS: “At the firm, I thought I knew how to be a good boss, but there was no one person who looked to me as their only boss.” At the agency, Anderson had a team looking to her for guidance and support, and they relied on her to make decisions that affected their lives every day.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be finished learning how to be a good boss,” she says, “but I started to really learn that at DHS.”
A native of Minnetonka, Minnesota, Anderson earned her bachelor’s degree in economics from Northwestern in 1985 and her J.D. from the University of Michigan in 1990.
After graduation, she clerked for U.S. District Judge Harold Greene, whose approach to lawyering shaped her own. At the district level, she says, judges need to be able to make decisions very quickly. “That was where I really learned that the best advice I can give right now is immeasurably better than the perfect answer tomorrow,” she says. Anderson subsequently clerked for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist at the U.S. Supreme Court from 1991 to 1992.