Before landing the top legal job at the Juilliard School, the world-renowned performing arts school in New York, Laurie Carter had planned on going into another kind of performing art–litigation. To finance law school she took a job at Juilliard as director of student affairs, and upon graduation in 1993 she had an offer to be a litigator for the Bronx district attorney. It looked as though her plan would pan out.

But Juilliard’s top brass weren’t ready to let go of Carter. They came to her with the irresistible offer to stick around and build a legal department from the ground up. Nearly 20 years later Carter has become a Juilliard institution, running the school’s now-flourishing legal department while taking on what seem like multiple other full-time jobs–from creating and overseeing Juilliard’s first jazz program to teaching a class on the business of jazz.

Q:When did your interest in performing arts develop?
A:My mother always had an interest in the arts, so she would take us to concerts and dance performances. My sister and I started studying dance at a young age, and we all started playing instruments in elementary school.

Q:Were you always planning on going to law school?
A:Absolutely not. As an undergrad I was thinking I would go into PR or television news. To put myself through graduate school, I started working in residence life. I came to Juilliard and set up the entire student affairs operation. I began law school (Rutgers University) the second year I was here. I needed more intellectual stimulation and professional challenges.

Q:Were you planning to stick around Juilliard after law school?
A:When I completed law school I had an offer from the Bronx DA’s office. I was also an older law student (she graduated at 31), so I was thinking about a family. A friend said to me, “Think about it. Four years from now you could be pregnant and living in the Bronx.” At the same time the dean of Juilliard asked me if I would stay here and set up a legal department. For me to be able to bring my experience in the law into a place I loved, to help it move forward and to protect it in terms of liability was sort of a dream job.

Q:What went into the creation of Juilliard’s legal department?
A:It was a lot of training and informing the community about some of the legal issues that were hot topics in higher ed, such as sexual harassment, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) issues and ADA issues. We provided more training and support to the departmental chairs so they understood how to manage departments without putting the institution at legal risk. We put a number of checks and balances in place to provide the school with legal protections that didn’t exist before but–as society changed–needed to be locked in.

Q:Did you like the challenge of setting everything up?
A:I loved it, and I still do. The opportunity to work with Juilliard’s brand and licensing also has been very exciting. We have entered into a relationship with a company called SoundChannel, which is partly owned by one of our faculty members. The company is embarking on two major projects: a DVD introducing classical music to children, but done in a very different format than we see out in the market right now, and the development of liner notes for downloaded music.

Q:How important is the Juilliard brand?
A:Juilliard is a special place, and we believe that it’s a special brand we have to protect. The relationships we enter into have to be of a certain level of quality and enhance the value of our brand rather than detract from it. We’re very careful about how we permit the name to be used.

Q:Is it difficult being the legal person in such a creative environment?
A:Initially it was a little challenging because people in the arts world sort of have a trust. A lot of things are done on a handshake. A lot of things are just understood. But because I’ve been here for such a long time, there is a general understanding that the work I do is in the best interest of the institution, the students and the faculty.

Q:What kind of issues do you deal with on a daily basis?
A: Day to day there are a lot of contract issues, negotiations, policy issues and keeping pace with the changing laws governing higher ed and employment law. People often ask me, “What does Juilliard need a lawyer for?” And the reality is any employer or arts organization needs an attorney. In performing arts there are issues that have to do with harassment that people outside of the institution may not be aware of. We educate our faculty to ask the student first if they can touch them to make a correction in dance class, for instance.

Q:Can you tell me about the jazz program you started?
A:We are in our seventh season now. The program has 32 students and it’s a performance-based program, which sets it apart from other jazz programs in the country and provides them with a wealth of experience as professional musicians. So for the students it’s a wonderful opportunity to get an education yet also have a real sense of what it’s like to be a working artist. (Juilliard alumnus Wynton Marsalis is a faculty member.)

Q:What do you do when you’re not working?
A:I’m very active in my church, and I am the worship leader for our children’s church program. That’s sort of my great passion. I’m also very active at my son’s school and I coach basketball for primary school kids. I ran track and field in high school and college, so I still run to relieve stress and tension. I would like to say, because my record was just broken, I held the 400-meter hurdle record at Clarion University for 26 years. It was just
broken in the spring.

Q:Do you see the Juilliard School in your son’s future?
A:Maybe. He started playing trumpet after he came with me to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and he loves it. He does say it’s the only college that he will attend, but he’s only nine, so we’ll see.

Q:You’ve been at Juilliard for almost 20 years. What is it about that place that you love?
A:Everything. I cannot imagine being anywhere else.