Covering corporate law departments and in-house attorneys for Texas Lawyer and other American Lawyer Media publications, reporter Kristen Rasmussen profiles Daniel Sharphorn, vice chancellor and general counsel at The University of Texas System, one of the largest public university systems in the United States.
With 14 institutions and a projected enrollment of more than 234,000 students, the UT System confers more than one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees, educates approximately two-thirds of the state’s health care professionals annually and accounts for almost 70 percent of all research funds awarded to public institutions in Texas. With more than 20,000 faculty and nearly 80,000 health care professionals, researchers, student advisers and support staff, it also is one of the largest employers in Texas.
The UT System’s Office of General Counsel employs 32 attorneys and five real estate professionals, each of whom serves all 14 UT institutions in addition to the system’s central administration. Many of the institutions employ additional on-campus attorneys directly, with the larger ones employing as many as 20 and the smaller ones zero or one.
Sharphorn’s team handles the great majority of its legal work in-house, either in the GC’s Office or through the campus-based attorneys. Because the UT System is a state agency, the Texas Attorney General’s Office has a right of first refusal to represent it in litigation and thus handles 90 to 95 percent of litigated matters, with the rest sent to outside counsel.
Sharphorn said that at any given time, he engages 12 to 15 law firms, ranging from large to small, to help with specialized areas of law such as tax-exempt bonds, FCC communications, utility law, health care transactions and compliance and intellectual property, which accounts for about 50 percent of the work. The system also outsources major litigation that the AG does not handle, he added.
“A good deal of time, maybe as much as half, is spent with what I would consider managing and mentoring, along with executive officer duties,” Sharphorn said, adding that he also handles some substantive matters, sometimes as lead but often in a consulting role with attorneys who are doing most of the work.
Along with OGC managers, institution leadership, faculty and legal officers, as well as system administration officials, Sharphorn said he also advises on and sometimes initiates all levels of UT System policy.
ROUTE TO THE TOP
“It’s probably fair to characterize it as unusual,” Sharphorn said.
After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he served in the Vietnam War and then attended the University of Michigan Law School. Sharphorn then spent three years as a judge advocate general officer, the last two back at West Point teaching the same classes that he said intrigued him as a cadet.
Sharphorn then returned to Ann Arbor, where he earned graduate degrees in sociology and social work and joined the staff of the University of Michigan Office of General Counsel, where he became deputy GC and also taught as an adjunct faculty member in the sociology department. He said he decided to apply for the deputy GC position at the UT System at the request of his daughter, who had settled in Austin, where he arrived for the role in December 2007.
When the prior GC left, then-Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa appointed Sharphorn as interim GC and then GC, a position he has held since May 2013.
“Leaving Ann Arbor was hard, but I have come to truly admire and care about the spectacular entity that is The University of Texas System and the people it comprises, as much as and in many ways even more than I ever did the University of Michigan,” he said.
In addition to “enjoying my kids and three wonderful granddaughters along with my wife of 45 years,” Sharphorn said his passions are sports (UM and all the UT teams), reading and “great Texas fishing.”
“My wife still complains that we had a bass boat before we had a place to live,” he said.
“Lately, I seem to be reading books written by friends or whatever my eldest granddaughter is reading,” Sharphorn said. From the first category, “The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust,” by Amos Guiora. From Sharphorn’s granddaughter, Winter, the fourth book in “The Lunar Chronicles,” by Marissa Meyer.