The Collegian
Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Administrators name first-ever general counsel

Shannon Sinclair, the University of Richmond's first general counsel, said what she enjoyed most about working in her area of law was the variety of tasks she could do.

"You get to be exposed to so many different areas of law and you get to be helpful to people who are trying to do things the right way," Sinclair said.

As the general counsel, or in-house lawyer, Sinclair will act as a legal adviser to the university, she explained.

"I'm here to be a sounding board," Sinclair said, "to give advice on anything they need help with. If I don't know the answer, I'll help them figure out how we get the answer."

There are many laws that the university needs to comply with that fall under her responsibility. These include accreditation issues and the privacy of students' educational records, she said. There are also rules governing Richmond as a non-profit organization, and she will help the university meet them efficiently and cost-effectively, she said.

President Edward Ayers elaborated on her job description, saying having an in-house lawyer would help prevent legal problems.

Before the creation of the general counsel position, administrators hired outside lawyers when they needed them — sometimes administrators would hire from McGuireWoods, a law firm where Sinclair had previously worked, she said.

University officials decided to hire an in-house lawyer last year, Ayers said, because it seemed the right thing to do because of factors such as the size of the endowment and responsibilities for students and employees.

"It's the responsible thing to do for the university to have a legal counsel at hand for all the decisions you're making," he said.

Sinclair has moved around from many different jobs since graduating from law school at the University of Pennsylvania. Her first job was clerking for a federal judge in Norfolk before starting at McGuireWoods, she said. Sinclair then earned her master's in public health from Harvard University through a special program for people who were already practicing law, she said.

After returning to the law firm for a short while, she worked at the George Washington University Medical Center in a position similar to that which she holds here. Sinclair then worked at McGuireWoods once again before moving to her most recent job as senior vice president and general counsel of Inova Health System in Fairfax, where she worked for nearly 12 years, the longest she had been in one place, she said.

Although she has a passion for having variety in her day-to-day professional life, she said she hoped to stay at Richmond for a long time.

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One of the most valuable things she has learned, she said, is that people's interests and career aspirations can be adjustable.

"Sometimes you take a risk financially; sometimes you take a risk professionally," Sinclair said. "But in my experience it's always paid off."

For example, she took a pay cut and moved to a more expensive city when she started her job at George Washington, which she said was supposed to be temporary. However, the job ended up being permanent. She said it had been a springboard that helped her get to where she was today.

She said she thought the experience she gained at all of her previous jobs would benefit her at Richmond, citing experience with transactions, contract reviews and human resource issues. She also helped to create the general counsel position at Inova, she said.

Ayers said, "We were looking for somebody who could bring great expertise and energy."

Although university stakeholders who helped choose the general counsel were skeptical about her lack of experience in higher education, he said, they realized the skills she had from previous jobs were highly transferable.

"It was very clear after we talked to everybody that she was our first choice," he said. "And we were very grateful that she took it."

Sinclair officially began her job on Oct. 20 for the university, and so far has been meeting people and assessing the school to see if it is compliant with laws and risk before building a legal plan based on those two things.

Sinclair, who said she was passionate about ensuring that non-profit organizations lived up to their obligations, said that as a general counsel she was prepared for anything and she enjoyed that uncertainty.

As Richmond's first general counsel, Sinclair is ready to set an example.

"I think it's a good opportunity to come in and set up a really innovative, really service-oriented general counsel's function," she said. "I want to make sure people come away thinking we've made a good decision when we decided to hire a general counsel."

Contact writer Elizabeth Hyman at elizabeth.hyman@richmond.edu

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