The Role of General Counsel in Times of Crisis with Maria Feeley, Chief Legal Officer of Washington and Lee University
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Maria Feeley, the Chief Legal Officer of Washington and Lee University, to discuss the important role of the general counsel in times of crisis and GC’s expectations of outside counsel.
We’re going to talk about crisis communications today. I’d like to know is how you define crisis or define what is a crisis for your institution and some of the types of crises you’ve had to manage.
In my experiences, crisis and reputational management issues come in all shape, sizes, and flavors. They each have a unique set of circumstances around them, but they can each have an equally devastating impact on reputation, brand management, and relationships with key stakeholders. They can result in, a firestorm or even, what can be a more damaging these days is a social media storm. I’ve been in various roles, I currently chair a college board and have been outside counsel and inside counsel to various institutions from an elite liberal arts college with a $2 billion plus endowment, a large public HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) to a university with seven different colleges, and a more modest under $200 million endowment. Then I chaired the board of a small school that’s been around for a hundred years but doesn’t have anywhere near those resources.
One thing I’ve realized is that none of those institutions are immune to crisis, and there’s so much overlap in the types of situations that they could face and, and what they can do to prepare. Some examples at one of the institutions, I was there in my first year with a new president and there was a horrific viral internet story. The hashtag was justice for jazzy. I won’t go into the horrific details of what one first year student did to another. Twitter was angry and rightfully so and we were being tweeted at, by Jesse Williams, Van Jones, Al Sharpton. We were on MSNBC every night for a while. That was followed by a Title IX lawsuit involving a division one athlete and coach, which gets more attention when you’re talking about D1 athletes.
Then we had a stabbing on our campus during accepted students day.
Not only do we have our normal population, but we had all the visiting high school seniors and their parents during a lockdown with the police trying to find the perpetrator. We had an NCAA investigation and negotiated public resolution, which you can also read about. After a while, I was the athletic director, the department thrived, we had our men’s of all teams first ever NCAA tournament appearance. as a reward, a few months later, the board voted to go from D1 to D3. There’s now a federal lawsuit pending and relentless media coverage. So, that’s just one institution’s array of issues that you’ve got to manage. When I was at an HBCU, at my first public board meeting, they fired the first female president in the institution’s history a year and a half into her contract. Two days later, most of the cabinet was separated from the institution.
A few months later, there was a shooting at homecoming resulting in the death of student followed by a football concussion lawsuit.Even at the small liberal arts college, right outside Philadelphia, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, I oversaw a presidential search where we selected to hire the first male president in the history of the institution that until 10 or so years ago was all female. As you can imagine, some people understood the decision, but a lot of alums needed some careful attention in communication. The array of issues that can come at you and turn into something that you didn’t expect. Within hours. There’s a lot of things to think about when you’re trying to avoid or successfully manage a crisis.
Did you ever think that media relations, social media management, brand management, reputation management, would play such a big role in the practice of law?
Gina Rubel: What’s fascinating as both lawyers, we deal with reputation, manage crisis communications, and litigation communications. I can’t tell you how many lawyers don’t appreciate the importance of those issues and don’t understand the language of brand management. There’s so much opportunity to add value to the services corporate law firms provide as outside counsel by understanding how these issues interplay with everything.
What should be the role of General Counsel’s Office at time of crisis?
Hopefully, you’ve figured that out before the crisis. It’s not just as a GC sitting with my board chair hat on. Whenever you get involved at a high level or C-level position or board level governance position with an institution, you’ve got to do an assessment first. You’ve got to figure out what talent is there and who is going to be able to be on the team to successfully navigate through these reputational issues. You might inherit a great team with pros that have connections to the media that know how to talk to the media, or you might inherit a very green team. You might have a first-time president or a first-time board chair or your PR office might not be local. You might have somebody that came from another state, and they have great contacts in Wisconsin, but they don’t have any in Georgia where you might be located.
Assessing your team first is important because if you don’t know everybody’s skillset and experience levels going into a crisis, then you don’t know who’s capable to do what it takes to manage through a crisis. That’s one thing that I recommend doing. Take the temperature of everybody, get a sense of who is going to be on that team when you’re in crisis mode. That is the first thing that a GC or any high-level executive should do when they join an organization.
As a law firm marketing and crisis communications agency, Furia Rubel has handled a lot of crisis matters for various higher education institutions and where board members caused the crisis. How do you vet for that? Can you even vet for it?
It is interesting to me how different institutions are in terms of how they identify and choose board members. Most of my experience is in the nonprofit, higher education sector. Corporate is very different and it’s changing a lot as you have places trying to help diversify boards. But in higher ed space, I find it’s unique to each institution. One of the things that I’ve tried to do as a board chair is to be much more strategic in identifying people to be on the board and to orienting them. They might not know that they’re going to create a crisis, or they might not understand what their role is. You must train them and orient them and educate them about what it means to be on a board. Teach them how, if they speak and purport to be speaking on behalf of an institution, they could create a firestorm. Teach them what to do if they are contacted by the media. Teach them not to speak off-the-cuff and to know the protocol.
Do you train board members around a crisis plan and how crises are managed?
I do. This has been a subject matter expertise area for me, I find that it is way better to train people or educate people or provide them with information well before they need it than to be scrambling at the end to try to control your message, to decide who’s going to be the point of contact for media inquiries. I have a very short orientation for new board members that I like to do because you don’t want to provide too much information. You want to provide the most important information right away. For me, one of the most important things is understanding that when you are on a board, you’re part of a governing body, you shouldn’t go rogue and individually do things. That includes speaking or responding to the media and leaking to the media. That is part of the training that I do with the board that I chair. When I’m asked to train boards at other institutions, I always incorporate that information.
When do you create a crisis communications plan?
As I indicated earlier, brand reputation issues, crises, they come in all different sizes, shapes, and forms. They require unique responses to some extent, but there are some things that you can do well in advance before a potential crisis is even on your radar. I include that in planning. From my perspective, there are things that you could do to lay the groundwork so that you are well prepared to navigate quickly. The first few hours of a crisis can be critical. You should already have some things in place so that you’re nimble and able to do things quickly. For example, I mentioned assessing the team is the first thing that you want to do but build the right relationships early so that you are not picking up the phone to call an external crisis management firm when the crisis has already been going on for a few hours.
Have that relationship now because you want those external partners to already know your institution, to know the key players, to know your state stakeholders, to understand your culture. How are they going to give you quick and good advice if they don’t know you? You want advice that’s narrowly tailored to your institution and your specific situation. Building those relationships immediately when you enter the job is important. Then you need to build those internal relationships so that you will be a trusted advisor. How could you be a trusted advisor if people don’t know you? It takes some time to build trust. The other thing that is important is to figure out the central point of contact, particularly if there’s anticipated litigation. It’s important to determine who’s going to be central command. Is it going to be in the GCs office? Is it going to be in your marketing and communications office or is it going to be somewhere else because of who you have on the team? Identifying that person so that everybody knows who it is before a crisis is important. You can get into trouble if the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and then you can end up having inconsistent messages and your strategy won’t be consistent and on point. Those are two things you could do early on. Building those external partnerships, internal relationships and make sure who’s going to be on the team and who’s going to take the lead when you’re in a situation. If you haven’t done that before you are in the situation that can eat up a lot of valuable time.
Gina Rubel: One of the things to add to that, especially for our audience of listeners, which is both in-house marketers at law firms and lawyers themselves is to understand when they play a role as well. The type of crisis is going to dictate when your outside counsel is going to need to be a part of that team. That’s defined in your plan based on the type of crisis. If it’s a cyber breach, for example, you may have your privacy counsel available. Somebody who works in data security available, but you also know that you must contact your insurance provider first, because the cyber policy says that.
I’ve noticed that a lot of big firms are providing crisis communications offerings. Have you worked with any of them?
Yes, but not connected to the law firm, but outsourced by the law firm. I deal with a lot of big firms that I trust that their very experienced attorneys, have been through this, and they know how to deal with the media. I much prefer to have a relationship where even if the main partner at the firm, doesn’t have the subject matter expertise for the particular issue that I’m dealing with, he could have the good judgment and experience to understand the big picture issues, because you don’t have to be a subject matter expert for example, you mentioned cybersecurity to understand how the social media or the traditional media coverage can go. That person can partner with the crisis communication team that either you select, or they recommend. That way you’ve got somebody else in the loop that also understands your brand, your culture, and knows your people. Each firm that I work with has a relationship manager. I keep that person involved in everything, even when it’s not within their subject matter expertise, because they kind of reign in some of their colleagues that might not get that it’s not just about winning this legal battle.
On an RFP, have you ever asked about prospective counsel’s experience in high profile litigation or crisis communications?
I’ve been doing this a long time and I was in big law for most of my career. I’ve built my own network. I don’t go through the RFP process. I want to work with people I know that I’ve seen and tested. Now if I was ever in a situation where I had to do that, I would. But one of the benefits of coming out of big law is that you have worked with so many of these people and you’ve been in against them in many different cases. That’s the highest compliment. I often hire people that I’ve been on the other side of the courtroom.
What trends are you seeing and how are they impacting your position as the chief legal officer?
Some trends are unique to the schools that aren’t elite that everybody’s trying to get into because of the prestige factor or because they have a high ranking. One trend that is in higher ed right now, which is wreaking havoc is demographic changes so that schools that are largely dependent on tuition revenue for their operating budget are seeing decreased enrollment numbers of traditional aged college students. That has had a ripple effect so that we have seen so many, closings and mergers of colleges and universities throughout the country in a way that we had never seen before. See Inside Higher ed: Pennsylvania Board Votes ‘Yes’ on Consolidation
It is a national trend and it’s a crisis throughout the industry because, if you are dependent, if you’re not sitting on a multi-billion-dollar endowment and you’re dependent on tuition revenue and you are seeing a decrease every year and you’re still doing things the same way, delivering services in the same way with the same amount of staff, you’re not going to survive. The mass of higher ed that’s not in that small category that has the billions of dollars in the endowment has had to adjust and it’s going to have to continue it to adjust. As there are less students graduating from high school than there were by virtue of demographics changes. You also have a lot of people that don’t see the same value. They are getting steered towards different types of careers, they want to take a break, there’s a lot more non-traditional age college students that demand to be provided services in a different way. I do call it a crisis because a crisis is something that can bring you down in the end. I do think there are a lot of schools that have been completely brought down and there are more to come if they don’t adjust.
Is it just demographics or, has the pandemic increased the speed with which this is happening?
This was going on before the pandemic. The pandemic added a new layer, a new wrinkle. You have colleges and universities that were already in fiscal crisis in trying to manage that because of the change in demographics and the enrollment challenges facing most institutions. Then when you add the fact that now a lot of your customer bases decided that they’re going to put college off, or they want it delivered in a different way in the comfort of their own home and they don’t want to pay the same amount as they would have for that in-person experience, it has compounded a problem that was already there.
We know that there’s financial challenges as one of the trends you’re seeing impacting chief legal officers. What about things like mental health and behavioral health issues of students and faculty?
That’s been a huge shift as well. Years ago, nobody talked about mental health. If they did, there were negative connotations and that has changed. This generation of college students understands that mental health is as important as physical health. They’re demanding attention in that area. They’re aware of their own mental health and they want it to be cared for. They want support in place if they need it. If you have a place when somebody gets a cold or a flu, they could go to on campus health. Students expect the same thing if they’re struggling or dealing with mental health challenges. The pandemic has exacerbated the issue.
Can you imagine being in school and you’re supposed to graduate and you’re going to have these great memories with your class and then suddenly tomorrow, the school shuts down. You’re never going to see some of these people again, or you lose those precious last few months, or you don’t get the graduation experience. You miss your study abroad experience or you get your division one hopes ripped away right before the championship game. These kids have suffered through many things that nobody would’ve ever anticipated and it’s challenging. They recognize that they need to take care of their mental health. They’re demanding more, as they should, from institutions, but it puts institutions in a weird position because a lot of them are not equipped. They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the funds. It’s a struggle, but it’s something that is a hot topic in the industry now. And it’s not going to go away and schools are going to need to adjust.
Gina Rubel: It’s not going to go away. As a parent of two college age students, I can say, you hit the nail on the head about five times. We’re one family and both of our children have been incredibly impacted by the pandemic, whether it was, our son who didn’t get a senior year in school, he was at home or our daughter who missed a year and a half of in-person college and the opportunity to go to Ghana to study abroad. As a parent, it is important that universities have the resources necessary to help students through all the different adjustments. If you ever need a parent spokesperson, I’m there.
Maria Feeley: I don’t want to call them nice disappointments, but we also have the food insecurity issues because people have lost their jobs from the pandemic and that inability to keep the heat on.
Gina Rubel: There’s also the inability to stay at college because their parents lost their jobs, and they didn’t have a scholarship. There’s the inability to access because the community doesn’t have the resources let alone the university. We haven’t even talked about the socioeconomic backgrounds and how there are such disparities. We all have an opportunity and a duty to help in those regards to whatever extent we can.
What about student outcries against universities? Do you see much of that? Perhaps they don’t like that an attorney at the firm that the university works with represented somebody that the students don’t like. Are you seeing more of that?
Well, in a good way, young people are engaged and care about issues that maybe wouldn’t have been on a lot of students’ radars years ago. They’re activists, engaged in social and, political issues, and that’s a good thing. But it can also cause a headache for the administration, when they don’t like a decision an institution has made or someone who was hired. It is an issue that a lot of college and universities are grappling with these days. Most colleges and universities would be supportive of their students being engaged citizens, of course academic freedom and freedom of speech is something that’s a core value for most institutions of higher education. Balancing that when you have a conflict between your students and your administrators or your board or something else can be a challenge.
Do you deal a lot with issues of whether it be first generation college students or traveling students?
Yes. First generation college students are huge and it’s fantastic, right? The fact that we have more people with access to education and going to college is a good thing. When you look at the data, the average earnings of somebody over a course of a lifetime that has a college degree are substantially higher than somebody that doesn’t. That’s a good thing but there are challenges that come with serving a population of students that are first generation college students, because they can’t call mom or dad and say, how do you do this? Mom and dad don’t know because they’ve never done that before. Or perhaps there isn’t a mom and dad to call.
Making sure that you understand who your students are that you can provide them the support that they need is important. That support might include things that you didn’t normally do in the past, including helping them navigate through, for example, the financial aid process in a way that maybe in the past, you assumed that they would do because they weren’t first generation college students and parents had been through that process before. In terms of the international question, it’s country specific and especially during a pandemic. We’ve hired a firm, which has subject matter expertise that has bases all over the world. We have a robust travel program for our spring term where we send classes all over the world and we want to do it in a way that’s safe.
We’ve hired a firm that we can pick up the phone and say what’s going on, on the ground, in Italy right now. What’s going on in the ground in Ghana right now? That’s one thing that’s great about working at a place that has these types of resources and you can afford to do that. But if you’re at a smaller place, it’s very difficult right now navigating through these issues during a global pandemic, especially when the rules are constantly changing.
Gina Rubel: It’s fascinating. A key takeaway in this conversation is understanding that crises come in every shape and size. They affect people in different ways. No one is immune. As the attorney on behalf of your institution, as general counsel with a staff of people, you must recognize how each of these issues interplay with the students, the families, the educators, the trustees, the donors, the media, the social media critics and so on. If your outside counsel can do that as well, they’re going to be bringing a great amount of benefit to you.
We’ve talked a lot about being a general counsel, but one of the things we didn’t talk about are some of your passions. You chaired a women’s initiative, you were the vice chair of a diversity committee, you’ve been on hiring contributions committee, you co-founded a Latinx affinity group. What I got from that is that you are very committed to diversity in inclusion, equity, and creating a sense of belonging. How do you encourage that in others?
I don’t know how I encourage it in others other than doing the right thing and hoping that message spreads. I find that when you do something and it works and the result is positive, that gets attention and people want to replicate it. I’ve been fortunate to have been mentored by some great people that when these issues were important to me early on in my career, didn’t say things to me like, you should spend all your time billing hours. Rather, they encouraged me to do those things. Being involved in the affinity groups from the time of being a young lawyer, has been something that has helped me professionally from dealing with imposter syndrome issues, to not feeling like you belong, to being able to be in a room where you see others that look like yourself and might have similar backgrounds.
That was so important for me to be able to make it. To feel like I could continue when as a young attorney, wondering if I made the right decision? Am I good enough to do this? Then being able to have those conversations with young attorneys and seeing them stick around and flourish and get promoted is rewarding. I don’t necessarily actively lobby people to do the same type of work that I’ve done. I have noticed that I’ll get phone calls asking me, “I noticed that you implemented this at this place, or I heard you speak at this event.” That it happened organically makes me feel good about the work I do.
Do you expect the law firms that you work with to have strong diversity initiatives and the numbers to reflect that?
Yes. One of the luxuries of being the client and being a general counsel is I get to be very frank. Big law attorneys appreciate that, and I am very candid. I expect them to try to advance the missions that they all profess to have to be diverse, inclusive. When I don’t see that on a team, I’m very vocal about it. It’s harder to do that early on in your career. You don’t have as much power, but I have buying power now that allows me to have those conversations. I’ve made changes based on what I thought was inflexibility or inability to deliver on diversity promises. I get a better product from outside counsel when they focus on these issues.
I don’t understand how you think you’re going to give an institution that’s very diverse, has diverse constituents, stakeholder, donors, alumni, good advice if it’s from a single perspective. It’s shocking to me that people that might not buy into diversity, don’t at least understand the business case, because there is a business case too.
Gina Rubel: You are not the only general counsel that we’ve spoken to that has said that. I hope if anything, that the executive committees and the hiring committees and the new business committees, hear it. We graduated law school with many more women and people of diverse backgrounds, but I didn’t know many women partners early in my career. They were few and far between.
Maria Feeley: Women partners still are few and far between in big law.
Gina Rubel: And the pandemic has hurt us in that respect. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by strong, well deserving leading women. We can only continue to raise the tides for all diverse people, not just women, but everyone. You and I can relate to being female. So that’s what I can speak to. But it’s people of all types of diversity who need to be included and to have a sense of belonging.
Maria Feeley: From hiring outside counsel, thinking about, for example, when you’re getting ready to try a case, and you’re thinking about who’s going to be in the jury, diversity comes in all sizes, shapes, forms. It’s not just about gender or ethnicity. It can be for example, even age. You can have a jury that has 18, 19, 20-year-olds and 75-year-olds. If the law firm is providing me with advice through the lens of strictly a 65-year-old, that’s not necessarily going to be the advice that I need. It is a no-brainer that understanding a broad perspective and bringing that broad perspective to your advice is critical to giving the best advice.
Gina Rubel: Right down to not just hiring lawyers from the same five law schools all the time, because they’ve all been taught the same way. You and I were talking about growing up in Philadelphia and how I admit I did not know that Cowboys were still a real thing when I was a teenager. But it was something you saw on TV, like the perspective of diversity from where you’ve grown up, what your life experiences have been, your age, your abilities, all those things.
Maria Feeley: If you only go to those few schools, it’s self-perpetuating because, the opportunity to get there and the path to get there is for some people nonexistent and for others, so difficult. If you want to have access to that broad group of people, you’re going to have to move out of that small group of schools sometimes.
About Maria Feeley
Maria Feeley is the Chief Legal Officer of Washington and Lee University, a nationally ranked private liberal arts university established in 1749 with an endowment valued at over $2 billion. She is also Chair of the Board of Trustees of Rosemont College, a private college celebrating its 100th anniversary, ranked #7 as a Top Performer in Social Mobility in this year’s U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges Rankings in the Regional Universities North category, up from #15 last year. Rosemont is the only college in the Philadelphia region in the Top 10.
Prior to joining Washington and Lee, Maria served as Vice President, General Counsel, Secretary, and – for two years – as Interim Athletics Director of the University of Hartford, an institution with seven colleges offering over 100-degree programs, students from 48 states, 63 countries, and a robust Division I Athletics program. There she was responsible for oversight of the Office of General Counsel, Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and Title IX Compliance, Athletics Department, Office of the Secretary, Compliance and ERM Programs. As Athletics Director, she oversaw a budget of over $22 million, managed over 75 full time employees and 17 Division I Athletics Programs, launched new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives and a new Varsity Esports Program, funded and built a new Esports arena, and celebrated the men’s basketball team’s first ever NCAA Tournament appearance and America East Championship win.
Prior to joining Hartford, she served as the Chief Legal Officer of Florida A&M University, one of the largest HBCUs in the country.
From 2007 through 2017, Maria was a partner in the Am Law 100 law firm Pepper Hamilton, where she chaired the Women’s Initiative, was vice chair of the Diversity Committee, and was on the Hiring and Contributions Committees. She was a senior legal consultant for FGIS, a risk management company former FBI Director Louis Freeh founded, and Pepper acquired. With FGIS, she served as a senior consultant for the Deepwater Horizon Economic Claims Center in connection with the largest court-supervised settlement program in U.S. history following the BP oil spill.
In 2014, the Pennsylvania Governor appointed her to the State Ethics Commission, an independent agency which enforces the Ethics Act, and certain provisions of the Lobbying Disclosure Law, Gaming Act, and Medical Marijuana Act.
Philly Biz named her a “Top Business Attorney;” Profiles in Diversity Journal honored her in its 10th Annual WomenWorthWatching® issue; The Legal Intelligencer and Pennsylvania Law Weekly named her one of Pennsylvania’s 25 Women of the Year in 2008; she received the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Peretta Award, was appointed Philadelphia liaison to the ABA’s Commission on Women, co-chair of the 2010 ABA Women in Law Leadership Academy Programming Committee, Zone 1 Delegate to the Pennsylvania Bar Association House of Delegates; she was elected to the Board of Governors of the 13,000 member Philadelphia Bar Association, appointed to the Committee on Judicial Selection and Retention, and chaired the Association’s Women in the Profession Committee, Annual Bench Bar Conference, Women’s Rights Committee, Sandra Day O’Connor Award Committee, and Drafting Committee for the Development of a Call to Action and Best Practices for the Retention and Promotion of Women Lawyers.
Maria obtained her JD from Washington and Lee University where she served as senior articles editor for the Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice f/k/a Race and Ethnic Ancestry Law Digest. She obtained her BA, cum laude, in Mathematics and History from Rosemont College, where she received a full-tuition academic scholarship, was inducted into the Delta Epsilon Sigma national honor society and was an adjunct business law professor from 2006 through 2015.
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