Ramona Romero, who joined Princeton University as its general counsel in 2014, was anything but a novice at running a legal department.
Before joining Princeton, Romero was general counsel at the U.S. Department of Agriculture for nearly four years, where her responsibilities ranged from forestry to the food stamp program. She joined the USDA after holding in-house posts at DuPont and one of its affiliates.
After graduating in 1988 from Harvard Law School, she joined Crowell & Moring in Washington, where she defended clients in civil and criminal enforcement actions brought by the U.S. Department of Justice and various enforcement agencies.
At Princeton, where she oversees a staff of seven lawyers, she has already settled a challenge to the university’s tax-exempt status, and she handles issues ranging from employment and the school’s physical plant to patenting and licensing of technology. Her background has helped her manage relations with outside counsel, to know what range of cost is acceptable and to evaluate their level of service.
A native of the Dominican Republic who came to the United States at age 10, Romero was president of the Hispanic National Bar Association in 2008 and 2009. In that capacity she testified at the U.S. Senate confirmation hearing for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Romero continues to urge outside counsel to provide opportunities to women and people of color, and she participates in the HNBA’s efforts to widen the pipeline of diverse candidates seeking legal careers.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The National Law Journal: Can you address how your background and experience helps you as you address regulatory issues at Princeton?
Ramona Romero: Having worked in a lot of different sectors, it does give me a broad perspective and comparison points to the issues that arise at the university. That’s really important in this context, because research universities like Princeton are very, very complex. In order to support, to fulfill its mission of educating students and of advancing knowledge through research, the university has to engage in an expansive range of activities that are broader … and more diverse than those undertaken by most for-profit companies. Many of the things that I learned representing Fortune 500s while I was in private practice at a law firm, and also while I was at DuPont, and also in government, apply to aspects of what the university does. It definitely helps to inform my analysis.
NLJ: What does the general counsel do, and what are some of the biggest things that you’ve been working on at Princeton?
Romero: I have a great team that has seven lawyers in addition to me. We are involved in everything the university does … One thing that I can talk about a little bit because it’s public, we were litigating a property tax challenge, tax exemption challenge, here in New Jersey. That took a fair amount of my time and attention over my first two years here. We [also] work on immigration issues. We work on … you name it, and I can say we probably do it.
NLJ: President Donald Trump has talked a lot about reducing regulation. What does the current administration have in store for Princeton and other institutions of higher education?
Romero: It’s difficult to tell in this current climate, because I think things are very uncertain. … We would welcome a reduction in regulatory burdens on researchers, and that … has been a subject of discussion in the higher ed community for a fairly long time.
In terms of areas that are of concern, there are several : First, the administration’s current posture on certain immigration issues … We’ve been encouraged by some of the pronouncements emanating from the White House and from the Department of Homeland Security about the continuation of the DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] program … that allows young folks that came here as students and as children early on in their lives to continue to stay in the U.S. and grants them work permits. There have been a range of positions on that issue taken by the administration. More recently, what we’re hearing is encouraging, but still the uncertainty creates difficulties for students at universities who are under the DACA program, because I think it’s hard to live up to your full potential when you live in fear of deportation. …
Similarly, on the immigration front as well, attracting talent from around the world is essential to American universities, as it is to the rest of the United States economy, right? Intellectual exchanges among students and scholars from around the globe enrich learning and understanding among people from different backgrounds. … The other issue that has a potential impact on research universities and education are the budget proposals made [earlier] by the president. …We have extraordinary scientific achievements and economic growth as a result. Any budget that would decimate funding to science agencies and reduce … funding for those who support students getting educated and also to support research is of grave concern.
NLJ: Did your experience at the USDA help or inform your experience at Princeton? Does it help you understand the regulatory process from both sides?
Romero: Absolutely. My experience in government taught me not to be alarmed by alarming rhetoric and by planned legislative or regulatory changes. Generally, there is a very long road between political pronouncement and the actual promulgation and implementation of regulations. I learned at the USDA that many initiatives really never reach the finish line. … Knowing that, I tend not to panic.
NLJ: Can you talk just briefly about what you did at the USDA? What was the nature of your job and what kind of things you dealt with?
Romero: I was the general counsel of the USDA … the chief legal officer, just like I am at Princeton. I did everything that the department did. I was the legal authority there, so as you know, the department is very big and complex. We had seven mission areas, ranging from rural development, and that’s the arm of the department that finances construction projects, community facilities, electrical utilities in the countryside. … It has a mission area that focuses on research, education and economics … so they do a lot of scientific … and economic research similar to what is done at a university.
NLJ: You were at DuPont for many years and it appears you had quite a few different roles. How did your experience at DuPont help you at the USDA?
Romero: It taught me basic mechanics of how do you run a large legal department. … It taught me about how to supervise people … how to build coalitions. How it helped me was by providing me with skills. … It wasn’t necessarily substance of stuff. I’ve been a lawyer for a long time. I had a lot of substance of expertise in a variety of areas that were relevant to the department.
NLJ: At Princeton, your department is a lot smaller, but can the things that you learned at a big company like DuPont apply to a place where you have seven people in your department?
Romero: Yes. The things that I learned at DuPont absolutely do apply. One of my jobs at DuPont was to manage DuPont’s relationships with outside counsel and to manage the operations of the legal department. Because we are small in the Princeton legal department, we do rely on outside counsel quite a bit … Having the skills to manage those relationships is very important. Also, the skills to know what is a good level of service and what isn’t. What is an acceptable range of cost and what isn’t. Knowing how to manage, to coach outside legal teams is very important.