August 24, 2020

Alumni Q&A: Priya J. Harjani

Alumna Priya J. Harjani

Name: Priya J. Harjani
Title: Associate Vice President & Deputy General Counsel
Northwestern University
Firm Background: Priya was an associate with the firm’s litigation group in the Chicago office from 2000-2004.

Tell us about your current role and your responsibilities on a day-to-day basis.

I serve as the associate vice president and deputy general counsel at Northwestern University. The Office of General Counsel is responsible for managing the legal work on the Evanston and Chicago campuses for all of the undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as our campus in Doha, Qatar. Part of my role is to manage the office, supervise the other attorneys and support staff in the office, and prepare for and present at board of trustee meetings. In addition, I routinely counsel and provide legal advice on numerous legal topics to senior leadership at the university and handle major litigation that is filed against the university.

What was your journey to Northwestern like?

I was a mid-level litigation associate at Gardner, Carton & Douglas (as the firm was then known) when the general counsel at Northwestern University asked whether I would be interested in applying for an assistant general counsel position at the university. I was very torn over whether to apply. While I was honored to be asked by the general counsel, I had not envisioned going in-house at all. I had been doing well at the firm and was not planning to make a career change. At the time, I had been working on a litigation matter for Northwestern as outside counsel for four years. Over those four years, I was very fortunate to have interacted with several members of the Office of General Counsel as well as the senior leadership at the university on discovery issues as well as depositions. It gave me some insight as to what it would be like to work in-house at Northwestern and gave them a chance to see my skills in action in what I describe as a four-year interview. After receiving the offer, I took a leap of faith and accepted. I was not sure what to expect exactly but 16 years later, I am still enjoying the job. It remains interesting and challenging. Since I joined Northwestern, I have been promoted four times leading up to my current role. Last fall, I was also asked to serve as the interim vice president for human resources for four months while the university conducted a national search to fill that role, which was a unique challenge of running a department of 100 employees while also maintaining my legal role.

It seems your experiences have run the gamut. What would you say have been your proudest professional moments, whether at the firm or with Northwestern?

During my time at the firm, one of my proudest moments was receiving the pro bono attorney of the year award. I had worked on an asylum case for a woman from Niger who was being politically persecuted and fled to save herself and her children. It took a lot of time and effort to prove her case in a trial in the first instance and then again on appeal, but we were successful. The woman was so appreciative. I have not had a case prior to or since then that has been that personally rewarding. The firm was very supportive of me while I was working on that case, and winning the award afterward was very touching.

Since I left the firm, I have worked on so many interesting legal issues at Northwestern. We deal with all of the issues that a big corporate company does (i.e., commercial litigation, employment issues, IP disputes, union matters, environmental concerns, tax issues, transactional matters, etc.) but also issues unique to higher education (tenure disputes, student discipline, NCAA and Big Ten Conference issues, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Title IX matters, research misconduct, plagiarism, town-gown matters, medical center issues with residents, research grant issues, etc.). I have been fortunate to have worked on some very interesting novel issues, such as the football team’s attempt to unionize, arguing a 7th Circuit case on a unique allegation of religious discrimination, conducting administrative hearings over delicate local issues, representing the university in discussions on federal legislation affecting higher education, and many other matters. The job is different day to day, which is what keeps me interested and engaged.

Sounds like it! How did your time at the firm prepare you for all this?

In addition to introducing me to my future employer, the firm prepared me well for going in-house. Starting from when I was a summer associate, more senior lawyers took the time to train me and my fellow classmates on how to litigate. Law school did not teach me these practical skills. I learned how to think like a lawyer in law school, but I learned how to draft discovery, take depositions and interact with clients once I started at the firm. I was fortunate to get great cases where I was getting hands-on experience from day one. I was never just stuck in a room doing document review – I always had a good mix of different cases where I learned unique things from each of the partners. I was also involved in firm committees and involved in client pitches, so I was able to round out my legal work with other valuable experiences. One of the skills I learned was to work with various personalities. As an associate in a firm, you have cases with different partners. I discovered very quickly that one size does not fit all; in other words, you have to learn how to work with different people and quickly understand their expectations with respect to communication style, writing style, work product, etc. Being able to adapt to different working styles is a skill that is useful in any setting and remains helpful to me even today.

Can you talk to us about how COVID-19 has impacted your role and some of the biggest challenges you’re dealing with as a result of the pandemic?

COVID-19 has had a major impact on my role. Northwestern went remote in mid-March and sent our students home (at least those who could go home). From that day forward, so much of my time has been spent on numerous committees and task forces developing policies and procedures related to COVID-19. We have been working through issues such as:

  • Which employees are essential employees who need to be on campus?
  • What are the protocols for bringing employees back to campus when needed?
  • What will the student experience be like in the fall?
  • How many classes will be in person versus remote?
  • What are appropriate restrictions on travel and visitors on campus?
  • What should the disciplinary procedures look like when students violate safety protocols?
  • What is the accommodation process for staff and faculty who do not want to return to campus?
  • Where are the areas of liability?

As of now, we are planning for students to be on campus in the fall even though a majority of their classes will be virtual. On top of all of the COVID-19 planning work, the normal legal issues continue, as well as a COVID-19-related lawsuit that was just filed – a proposed class action asking for tuition to be refunded from the spring quarter. The work has been nonstop for the legal department.

And are you currently remote? What about the rest of the workforce?

I am currently working remotely as is the majority of the staff and faculty, except those deemed essential for campus operations. However, the school year starts at the end of September – we are on the quarter system – and we will need staff and faculty who interact with students to return. This is quite challenging due to health issues, transportation concerns, childcare issues, and a general fear of returning to the workplace. We are currently working on all of these challenges in order to balance having a campus that is staffed sufficiently to meet student needs while being cognizant of very legitimate employee concerns.

 

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