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In-house counsel provide essential support to academic institutions

Like their counterparts in business and industry, in-house attorneys at Missouri colleges and universities devote plenty of time to contract review, real estate development, employment agreements and intellectual property.

That is, when they’re not managing Medicare and Medicaid certification, HIPAA requirements, controlled-substance laws, immigration and environmental regulations, First Amendment challenges and student-privacy concerns. Or determining what to do when construction workers on campus unearth what they initially feared was a human bone. (It wasn’t).

This fall, thousands of students returned to Missouri colleges and universities where nearly all aspects of campus life are affected by the work of in-house attorneys who work year-round, often in obscurity, to keep those institutions functioning and flourishing.

Meet five of them here:

RACHAEL DOCKERY

General counsel and chief compliance officer, Missouri State University

When Rachael Dockery transitioned from in-house counsel for a hospital system to in-house counsel of Missouri State University, she traded one complex environment for another.

“I joke I went from health care, the most heavily regulated industry, to higher education, which is nipping at its heels,” she said.

Rachael Dockery

Rachael Dockery

Dockery said each day on the job presents new and interesting legal questions.

For example, she said a contractor recently discovered a bone on a school construction site, raising questions about its origin — was it a human bone? — and potential delays or other impacts on the construction work. Ultimately, the bone was determined to have come from a pig.

“Every day you’re dealing with something new,” she said. “I didn’t think when I came to Missouri State I’d become as well versed in FAA regulations [as I am now] regarding the use of drones, for example.”

Dockery has been general counsel of the university since 2014. Earlier this year, she took on the additional responsibility of overseeing the university’s compliance with state and federal regulations as its chief compliance officer.

Her path to an in-house role began in the public sector. After earning her law degree from the University of Arkansas in 2003, she clerked for Judge Nancy Steffen Rahmeyer of the Missouri Court of Appeals Southern District.

From there, she joined the Benton County Prosecutor’s Office, where she worked on child-abuse cases. After a year, she transitioned to private practice at Strong-Garner-Bauer in Springfield, where she took on defense work for companies including CoxHealth.

Her familiarity with CoxHealth led the health system to recruit her as its in-house counsel — she worked as assistant general counsel there from 2010 to 2014, she said.

In 2011, her former colleague at Strong-Garner-Bauer, MSU President Clif Smart, asked if she wanted to work in-house for the university. The timing was not right for her then, she said, but it was when Smart called again three years later.

Dockery now is responsible for a legal department of two full-time attorneys and a paralegal. The university has about 3,000 employees and 26,000 students.

Her work includes typical assignments for in-house attorneys — contract review and employment matters — but her office also handles the university’s trademarks and many immigration-related matters in-house.

“There are a host of visa issues we deal with,” she said, noting the university’s diverse faculty and student body. “We do work with outside counsel, but we handle things inside, too.”

Dockery said the university environment also offers the unique opportunity for attorneys to work in the area of Constitutional law.

“Nowhere is the fight for the First Amendment riper or realer than [on] college campuses,” she said. She added that discussions about whether firearms should be permitted on college campuses are also center stage at the moment.

One of the aspects she enjoys about her work is the team she’s built around her.

“I have such a good, very competent, very skilled, very ethical group of folks whose compass always points true north,” she said.

The mission of higher education also is important to her, Dockery added.

“I’m a big believer in education, and public education is so important,” she said. “It’s one of the most concrete ways that people from underprivileged backgrounds can really change the trajectory of their lives.”

SANDRA GARCIA

Chief legal officer, Metropolitan Community College

A law school internship laid the foundation for Sandra Garcia’s interest in becoming an in-house attorney for a community college.

A native Texan, Garcia said interning for the legal office at Houston Community College was an eye-opening experience.

Sandra Garcia

Sandra Garcia

“What was alarming to me was that a lot of people don’t realize the impact that community colleges have,” she said.

Garcia said community colleges are not merely a bridge between high school and four-year degrees — they also help professionals to obtain necessary training and certification, and they fuel their communities’ economies.

She notes the sheer size of Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, where she is chief legal officer. MCC is the second-largest community college in the state, serving 17,000 to 23,000 students each year, she said. The college also has five campuses and more than 800 employees.

After earning her law degree from Texas Southern University, Garcia became a civil litigator, then eventually made her way back to Houston Community College in 2009 to work as assistant general counsel.

In 2017, HCC’s Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs, Dr. Kimberly Beatty, left the university to become chancellor at MCC. Beatty wanted to create a standalone legal office at MCC, and she invited Garcia to apply for the job of chief legal counsel, Garcia said.

“I thought it would be wonderful to take on that role,” she said, noting it was also an opportunity for career growth.

As chief legal officer, Garcia oversees the college’s in-house legal team, which includes one associate attorney, an administrative assistant and a legal analyst.

She’s responsible for overseeing day-to-day counsel and guidance for the institution and its administration. She also is a member of the college’s executive cabinet.

MCC’s Office of Institutional Equity and Inclusion is also under her purview. The office reviews all campus discrimination and harassment claims for students and employees. It includes the university’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, and it oversees MCC’s law enforcement arm.

As a Hispanic woman, Garcia said the school’s diversity and inclusion initiatives are close to her heart.

“One thing I’m championing is working with HR and enrollment services to make sure we are being diverse in our recruitment practices,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we have to hire more [diverse candidates]. It just means everyone has to be given an opportunity.”

She said retention is also important.

“How do we make them feel that their voice is heard?” she said. “That’s about having policies and procedures and looking at data and information. As a Hispanic person here, I feel like I have to advocate here a bit more for our community.”

While her work is behind the scenes, Garcia said she also enjoys knowing that it is crucial to the operation of the college. She said she tells her team that they’re not a front-facing operation.

“We’re a services department who are here to help the other departments to carry out the mission of the institution,” she said.

With that in mind, though, she said she enjoys seeing a program or event succeed — and knowing her work had a hand in that success.

“I like how we’re able to help people, in the background, complete the end goal,” she said.

ROBERT L. HESS II

Counsel, University of Missouri System

When he enrolled in law school, Robert L. Hess II was initially on track to become an intellectual property lawyer.

As an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, he studied engineering to prepare for that trajectory.

Robert Hess

Robert Hess

“That’s the path a lot of people with a technical background take,” he said.

While in law school at Vanderbilt, however, he considered a different direction during a summer clerkship at Husch Blackwell in Jefferson City. Because of the practice’s location in the capital city, the firm was uniquely positioned to have a robust regulatory practice, he said.

“I just really ended up liking the practice area,” he said.

After graduating from law school in 2001, Hess clerked for Judge Duane Benton, who then was serving on the Missouri Supreme Court.

He then rejoined Husch, where he practiced in the area of health care law for 10 years. At Husch — where he was a partner from 2009 to 2012 — he gained experience in several areas, including licensure, procurement and administrative appeals, which prepared him for his current role, he said.

While in private practice, he enjoyed the full span of his work, and he most enjoyed working for nonprofit clients.

In 2012, when an opportunity to go in-house for the university presented itself, it seemed like a natural next step, he said.

“When I saw the opportunity at the university was available, it lined up with things I knew about and things I like,” he said. “I reached out to a colleague, and he gave me a good recommendation. That’s what got me on the path to being here.”

As is the case for many in-house attorneys, Hess’ work varies from day to day. What remains constant is his client — a university system spanning four college campuses across the state.

In his position, he represents the university system, its hospitals, clinics and medical schools, and other health professional schools on health care issues.

As part of the practice, he advises UM on federal and state regulatory matters in areas such as licensure, accreditation, Medicare and Medicaid survey and certification, reimbursement, managed-care contracting, HIPAA requirements and controlled-substance requirements.

Hess said he enjoys the dynamic environment of health care law.

“I have mainly a transactional and regulatory practice, and the subject matter changes with the regulations and interpretations of the regulations,” he said.

An added bonus: He often gets to work in teams with others within the university system, from physicians, pharmacists and nurses to auditors and finance-compliance personnel.

“It’s sort of like solving a problem or puzzle,” he said. “When it goes well, you get a team of people and work on a solution that works for everybody.”

Much of his work tends to be interdisciplinary, and he’s always learning on the job, he said.

“I’ve always got one or two projects that are new or different, working with someone who’s an expert or knowledgeable, and I’ve learned something about it,” he said.

MARY E. NELSON

General counsel, St. Louis Community College

Looking back on her first experience as a general counsel, Mary E. Nelson said it was a “baptism by fire.”

From 1990 to 1993, during the administration of Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., Nelson was general counsel for the St. Louis Development Corporation, the economic development arm of the city.

Mary Nelson

Mary Nelson

“Everybody thinks that being in-house is so much less pressure because you’re not pressured to bill hours to a client, but nobody explains to you that when you’re in-house, you’re expected to be available to your client all the time,” she said.

The job was tough and required long hours during nights and weekends. But she said it was a training ground in how to hold her own as a GC, from managing outside counsel to building general competence as an attorney.

“You really learn a lot about how to be general counsel,” she said. “You either rise to the occasion or you get pumped. I’m not a person who allows herself to get pumped.”

Today, Nelson is general counsel of another public institution — St. Louis Community College. She’s been in the role since 2014.

Nelson’s career of nearly 40 years has ranged from private practice to the public sector, as well as working in-house and in state government positions.

After earning her law degree at the University of Missouri, she worked at the firm of Margaret Bush Wilson, a St. Louis civil-rights leader and activist attorney.

After a year she experienced her first — and only — firing, which led her to go in-house with the SLDC. That lower-level, in-house work later opened the door for her to return there as general counsel.

In the years in between, however, she started her own firm, then moved to private practice at Lashly & Baer before rejoining the SLDC as its general counsel.  She worked again for herself before becoming general counsel for the Kwame Building Group — a move that coincided with the company facing a massive lawsuit relating to the St. Louis MetroLink.

Her work on the case led her to join Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, where she worked until then-Gov. Jay Nixon — a college classmate — appointed her as director of boards and commissions for the state in 2009.

A year later, Nixon appointed her as commissioner to the Administrative Hearing Commission. While serving on the commission, she came across a job posting for the community college. By then, she was four years into her six-year term, and she’d been thinking about preparing for a potential change in governor during her tenure.

She had a connection to the college — her mother worked at the Forest Park campus — and she believed working there could be interesting. She applied and got the job.

Nelson said she most enjoys the variety of her work. On any given day, she might work on real estate development, environmental health and safety matters or First Amendment issues.

“There’s never a dull moment here,” she said. “If you have the right attitude, you’ll see it as exciting and challenging.”

Nelson reflected on her experience as an African American woman in her position. St. Louis “is still a very conservative community that still is working through issues about race and gender,” she said.

“Certainly, that makes for challenges for somebody who’s part of a leadership team at an institution as large as the college is,” she said. “It takes a certain kind of tenacity to make sure that you’re being heard when you speak.”

She said she’s been fighting that fight though her whole career. It can be exhausting, she said, but she’s grateful for the support of others who look like her.

Still, Nelson said she hopes her presence helps others to change their perceptions of people who are different from them.

“I hope that by interacting with me, they come away with that interaction understanding that I’m no different than they are, I can do the work just like them and maybe I have a perspective that’s not been considered, that only I can share,” she said.

WARREN WELLS

General counsel, Truman State University

Warren Wells never expected to spend much time in college, let alone work at one.

Today, Wells is general counsel at Truman State University in Kirksville. The role represents a turn in his career that he didn’t see coming, but he’s glad he made the change.

Warren Wells

Warren Wells

When he was an undergraduate and thinking about what major to pick, he opted to study political science, even though he wasn’t sure how he’d use his degree. He thought about graduate school or working elsewhere, and ultimately he ended up in law school at the University of Missouri.

“I didn’t see myself being in college long-term,” he said. “It’s a little ironic for me that I ended up doing this and enjoying it as much as I did.”

This year marks Wells’ 24th year as general counsel at Truman. The Hannibal native previously was city attorney for Cape Girardeau. He also has prior experience as a county prosecutor and in private practice.

When the opportunity arose to work for the university, he said he jumped on it because he saw the potential for the job to be enjoyable. He said his past experience working with city councils smoothed his transition.

Wells said a large part of his work with the university involves working with its governing board and others who work with the board, “so having an understanding of how boards function and how things work both theoretically and in reality is really helpful.”

Wells is the university’s sole in-house attorney. He said the school occasionally works with outside counsel, but the university is not involved in much litigation activity.

Employment and contracts law make up the two biggest parts of his practice. A smaller portion of his practice — 30 to 40 percent — addresses a variety of different types of law, including real estate matters and student-privacy issues.

Wells consults with deans and administrators on a variety of university issues, and he responds to faculty inquiries. He also is involved with writing campus policies and revising them.

“We recently wrote up a new policy dealing with intellectual property [which better describes] who is the owner of intellectual property created by employees of the university,” he said.

Wells said variety is the key to his day-to-day work.

“The single constant is [that] it varies all the time,” he said.

He especially enjoys the university environment itself, especially being able to talk with his colleagues about their various areas of study. A walk into the hallway may put him in touch with a political science or philosophy professor, for example.

“It’s a real pleasant way to have a little interlude between doing the work and actually having a little bit of a life aside from the work,” he said. “A lot of it is very interesting, and people are always interested in talking about what they care about. You get an interesting perspective on what they’re doing.”

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