Beth Nolan, general counsel of The George Washington University
Beth Nolan, general counsel of The George Washington University (Jessica McConnell)

George Washington University’s in-house legal department presents a how-to for meeting the myriad of legal demands upon universities today — whether it’s deal making, managing outside counsel spending or complying with increasing government regulation.

Of late, the 14-attorney legal team has led the school’s negotiations in a complex deal involving the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran College of Art + Design and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The proposed deal, announced in February, calls for the school to run the Corcoran College and to own and operate its building. The National Gallery would get Corcoran’s art and run exhibits in the building.

“We’re trying to move pretty quickly to get this done,” general counsel Beth Nolan said. Outside counsel are helping with document drafting and negotiations, she said.

The university’s legal team is embracing creative deals and “getting a lot of internal knowledge that helps them with the next project they do,” said Maureen Dwyer, a Washington real estate partner at Boston-based Goulston & Storrs. She’s outside zoning counsel and helping with the Corcoran matter.

The department is also busy implementing a permanent loan agreement to move The Textile Museum’s collection to a new building on campus this fall. At the same time, the in-house team handles real estate permitting and contract and employment work for the school, which had an $866.4 million operating budget for the fiscal year ending on June 30. Last fall, the school counted 5,185 full-time and 1,595 part-time employees.

Eleven women are part of the 14-attorney department, which also includes two minority group members. The team encourages outside firms to use diverse lawyers, because “we really do believe that you get better results,” Nolan said.

The university taps outside counsel to protect its intellectual property and help with real estate zoning work, major transactions and most litigation. To keep costs in check, the department uses some alternative billing arrangements, including fixed fees, blended rates and success fees, deputy general counsel Charles Barber said.

The university “excels at finding the right balance between handling matters with its own in-house team and involving outside counsel,” said Joseph Damato, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw, which does employment work for the school.

A major focus is compliance work. Following the Pennsyl­vania State University child sex abuse scandal in 2011, George Washington administrators wanted to review their own mechanisms for reporting and addressing on-campus crimes. The legal team played a key role in drafting a policy to protect minors that the university implemented last year, Nolan said. “We took what had happened at Penn State as an opportunity to look more broadly at how are we doing as a community,” Nolan said.

More generally, there’s been significant uptick in compliance and regulatory scrutiny of colleges and universities, Barber said. Hot issues include Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which bars sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funding, and conflict of interest reviews of board members and faculty, Barber said.


Name of organization: George Washington University
Headquarters: Washington
Industry: Higher education
No. of lawyers in the D.C. area: 13
No. of U.S. lawyers outside D.C. area: 1
No. of lawyers outside U.S.: 0
General counsel: Beth Nolan


♦ Sometimes you need to give difficult issues some breathing room. I love the solutions that elude me at the office but then come to me while walking to work or doing routine chores. — Beth Nolan

♦ Supporting your team throughout the organization, and letting them support you, is what gets the job done. — Nolan

♦ As important as having a command of … the law is the knowledge and understanding of your client. — Charles Barber