Gail Norris has gone to the head of the class in the University of Rochester’s 15-member legal department. In January she became vice president and general counsel, replacing Susan Stewart, who retired.

Norris joined the university as senior legal counsel in 2005. As GC, she will have primary responsibility for all of the school’s legal functions, including litigation, intellectual property, and employment law issues concerning the institution’s approximately 20,000 workers. Norris anticipates that regulatory issues related to the university’s medical center will present the steepest learning curve for her in the new role. “Luckily, I have a competent attorney taking the lead on those issues,” she says, “but I’m ultimately responsible.”

The 1983 Albany Law School graduate landed her first in-house position in 2000 as general counsel of biopharmaceutical firm Celltech Americas Inc. She oversaw all legal matters for the U.K.–based company’s U.S. operations. Norris says she was “curious when the GC position came up,” and she jumped at the opportunity—which, because the parent company was foreign, wasn’t on the radar of other local lawyers.

Norris had spent the previous 18 years in the corporate law practice of Nixon Peabody, where she became a partner in 1990. For lawyers wanting to eventually go in-house, Norris thinks, “transactional work in a corporate department is ideal.” She represented companies on a range of transactions, including finance-related matters and mergers and acquisitions. “I went from company to company,” she says, analyzing employment issues and risks, “figuring out how to do the deal.”

The new Rochester GC says she loves in-house work and wouldn’t change a thing about her resume, including both her in-house and outside counsel positions. But she didn’t always know she wanted to practice law. As an undergraduate at Syracuse University, Norris pursued journalism. She says she found the process too formulaic and added a second major in business. “I was more interested in the writing than in the investigative part,” she says.

Norris discovered her knack for law during her senior year, but she never abandoned writing. She currently blogs about innovation and business on behalf of the school for a local paper, the Democrat and Chronicle.

The new GC anticipates that managing the legal complexities of an institution of higher education will keep her desk pretty full. “It’s a living, breathing institution,” she says. “A research university is a complex business, but also a nonprofit organization with missions that serve the public good. It is nice to use my experience as a business lawyer in a way that fills a philanthropic purpose as well as an intellectual one.”