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Mary Kennard is vice president and general counsel for American University. She’s also president-elect of the Washington Metropolitan Area Corporate Counsel Association (WMACCA), where she’ll begin her tenure as president in January.
What’s new at WMACCA? WMACCA has just won an award: It won, for the second year in a row, the award for Large Chapter of the Year from ACC [the Association of Corporate Counsel]. I think we’re probably the only chapter to have done that for two years in a row. Some fantastic things have happened since I’ve been on the board. We’ve gone from about 900 members to over 1,400 members, which is a lot of growth in five years. We also run about 60 different programs and events in a year, and we’ve expanded so that our membership goes all the way south to Richmond. We’re not just Northern Virginia; we’re truly mid-Atlantic. On November 2nd we’ll be holding our second Corporate Counsel of the Year Awards ceremony, at the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner, in McLean, Virginia. We’ve got some great candidates for these awards. It should be a fun night.
Has the role of in-house counsel changed much, in your estimation? Today I teach a class in the law school focused on the role of the in-house university counsel, but when I started, I didn’t know how one became an in-house counsel for a corporation. In-house legal work is now a career path along with working for a law firm or government agency. Having done it myself for 26 years, I can say that in-house counsel offices are a wonderful and viable option for the practice of law. When you’re in house you’re part of the business. You have the opportunity to help shape the direction of the company and give timely advice early in the business-development process.
What do you tell your law students about your job? In my practice it’s the variety of matters that come across my desk. You need to know a lot about a lot of things. Also, I get to work with my client on a project over a long period of time, from the idea to the implementation of the idea, which you don’t get to do in other work. In-house counsel, you have to understand the company’s business. That is the most exciting part of the job — being an active part of the business of this university.
Speaking of the university, how has American evolved over the years? Well, I came here in 1995. Over the years, senior administrators and the faculty have really spent time focused on being the absolute best they can be. We don’t want to be anybody else. We’ve spent time looking at the curriculum, cleaning up the campus, and building new buildings, which look fabulous. In addition, the quality of the faculty has improved every year — we have at least one AU faculty member on the TV or the radio every day as an expert. And most importantly, the academic quality of our students has gone up year after year. Over a 10-year period the university has advanced in so many quality indicators. We also have a large international component, not just faculty and students, but we also have many international study-abroad programs. And these students bring that experience back in their final year of college. We’ve also helped to build private universities in other countries, one in the United Arab Emirates, called the American University of Sharjah, and the other in Nigeria, called ABTI American University. We helped them design their infrastructure and accreditation and develop exchanges for faculty, students, and administrators.
Did American have a general counsel before you started? Tony Morella was GC for almost 30 years with a law firm in Georgetown. So mine is the first in-house law office that is both part of campus and totally supported by the university.
How big is your legal team? We have four other attorneys. It has changed over the years. We’ve added a new attorney, who is an IP specialist. In addition, we use two fabulous attorneys at Morrison & Foerster, Sherri Blount and Ed Gray. Other than the IP specialist, the others have been working with me for the full 12 years. It’s a fabulously interesting job.
American’s former president, Benjamin Ladner, who resigned after an investigation of his personal and travel expenses, was much in the news a year or so ago. How much involvement did you have with that mess? Not as much as you might think. The board of trustees hired outside legal counsel to assist them in their work. We’re still doing some more improvements to governance reform. But we’ve had great legal support from Steve Ryan at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, [as well as] Hogan and Hartson and Arnold and Porter. It was a long year — you can quote me on that!
What other outside firms do you use? I tend to pick outside attorneys by the attorney, but besides Morrison & Foerster, we use Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman for real estate, Ogletree and Deakins for labor, and Holland & Knight and Akin Gump for employment.
Have the legal challenges changed over the time you’ve been at American? Yes. My litigation caseload is reducing, which I guess is a good sign. We’re doing more work in the IP area, in part to do with the use of the Internet, and also because we’re in the information business. We’re concerned about how we communicate and what we communicate. One of our ongoing problems is file sharing and illegal downloading of movies and music. We take this very seriously and tell our students that we enforce our policies. We also give them a lawful way to get new music.
How? At orientation we talk about it, and in order for a student to get a student account for an e-mail address, we have them review the university’s copyright and computer-use policy. So if they violate it, we take away their e-mail account and send them through “copyright school.” Then they can get their e-mail account back.
How many students have lost their accounts this way? Well, every year we have a few people who don’t want to follow the rules, so they lose their privileges.
Any other interesting issues? There are a fair number of fake degree mills who want to use our name or some variation on our name. So we spend a fair amount of time battling these Internet sites and have been successful in having ownership of their sites transferred to us by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
Are the degree mills attracted to American because of its name? Possibly. It also sounds like a national institution, and a number of sites want to convey some affiliation to the U.S. government. We spend a fair amount of time in trademark disputes, but we’re winning.
Do you use the law school for extra legal help? Yes, we always have law clerks who work with us and are getting credit for their work.
How long have you been using students as law clerks? I have always done it. I remember how hard it was to find a job when I was in law school. I want to be sure that our students have the chance to put into practice what they’re learning.
What’s your background? I received my undergraduate degree from Boston University, then I went to Temple University Beasley School of Law, and then GW for a LLM because I thought I wanted to be a law professor. But while I was at GW I got a part-time job at the National Association of College and University Attorneys. That’s when I found out that attorneys practice law at educational institutions. So I got myself to a campus, and I’ve been on campuses ever since.
Have there been changes in your career? Yes, I’m spending a lot of time managing volunteers in legal trade associations. Besides my work as president-elect of WMACCA, I’m also on the presidential ladder for NACUA [the National Association of College and University Attorneys], which has over 3,000 attorneys. Lots of in-house lawyers! This year I’m chairing NACUA’s program committee and involved in planning their annual conference.
And where would we find you outside the office? In the air or in the water. I’m still in the process of trying to get a pilot’s license. I take lessons at the Freeway Airport on Route 50, just outside the no-fly zone. It’s always been a dream, but I had to wait until my sons were old enough not to need me. And as for water, I swim. I’m trying to work up to a mile.
Read any good books lately?It’s been summer, so I’ve done beach reading. This summer I read all 12 of the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich. They’re fast.

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