Lawyering for the Gipper

by Roger Adler

Name and title: Carol Colby Kaesebier, vice president and general counsel.

Age: 59

National Catholic University: Established in 1842 by a French priest and seven companions, the University of Notre Dame du Lac has evolved into the United States’ pre-eminent Roman Catholic university. The school is rated among the nation’s top 25 institutions of higher learning, and enjoys the reputation of being a stellar research center. Notre Dame has one of the country’s top collegiate athletic programs, and its fabled football tradition has earned the “Fighting Irish” the title of America’s Team.

The university’s 11,603 students hail from 50 states and 100 overseas countries. It employs 4,200 people, and total operating revenues for the fiscal year 2007 exceeded $650 million. Notre Dame is near South Bend, Ind.

Legal team and outside counsel: The university’s legal squad consists of Kaesebier and five other attorneys, one of whom had been a legal assistant and became a lawyer with the general counsel’s encouragement.

Kaesebier estimated that 85 percent of their work is handled in-house, including torts, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges and employment matters. She selects from a pool of 10 to 12 firms when she requires outside counsel. Barnes&Thornburg in Indianapolis “has served us very well,” and she considers it her go-to firm. Jones Day assists with tenure litigation. She also seeks outside help for patent work, scientists’ disclosures, environmental issues and employee benefits.

Notre Dame has its own power plant, so Kaesebier works with outside firms on utilities matters. And the university owns oil and gas rights, also necessitating outside assistance.

Kaesebier reports to the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president.

Daily duties: “I usually have a plan” every morning, Kaesebier said, but there’s so much going on that she finds it difficult to stick to a script. On a given day, she might confront a research issue, a trademark matter and litigation. Human resources and employment, student rights, discrimination, disability issues and discipline are focus areas. Kaesebier handles business negotiations, major contracts and taxes. Intellectual property, immigration, risk management and on-campus safety fall under her supervision, as well. She quipped that she has handled “every kind of law but admiralty” — even though her school is situated on the shores of two lakes.

Notre Dame operates programs in 40 countries, so having systems in place to protect students, faculty and staff is critical. Research generates a spate of legal activity, much of which revolves around government grants. Kaesebier’s team deals with the legal ramifications of using potentially hazardous chemicals and nuclear radiation in more than 100 laboratories at the school.

Anti-sweatshop pioneer: Notre Dame was the first university in the country to establish a code of conduct for the licensees that display college insignia on their products. The Fair Labor Association monitors factories to ensure workers’ rights and assure adherence to international labor standards. Kaesebier has served on the association’s board since its founding 10 years ago.

She works with corporations, licensees in factories, nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups to promote humane working conditions. Her devotion to the cause has taken her to Vietnam, China, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. She finds that the complexity of foreign laws and differences in living standards conspire to make this a difficult problem to solve.

Kaesebier and some of her colleagues serve on the boards of groups that provide pro bono work. She has worked on immigration-related cases at Legal Aid clinics on campus and in the surrounding community.

Athletics and the law: More than 100,000 visitors flood the Notre Dame campus on football weekends. Tort claims, though mostly minor ones, often enough result. Kaesebier tries to anticipate potential problems.

Complying with the regulations of the National Collegiate Athletic Association is essential, so the university takes care to report any violations in recruiting and academic standards. Kaesebier and her team work with the athletic department in fashioning the high-profile coaches’ contracts and attending to matters related to broadcasting and sponsorship. Adhering to the athletic requirements of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is an additional responsibility.

Transactions, too: Recently, the legal department has had its hands full planning a major commercial district near the campus. Kaesebier participated in the selling and leasing of parcels of land to developers that are creating “a little campus town.” The district, Eddy Street Commons, will contain two hotels, retail shops, apartments, villas and condominiums. Kaesebier was also immersed in the sale of Notre Dame’s television station, from business, financial and legal standpoints.

Changes: During Kaesebier’s 20 years at the university, the department has become more like a business and less like the “family-run entity” that it used to be. The law staff has tripled, she said, and still “we could use more.” The university, sued only once during her first five years, now faces actual or threatened litigation two or three times per month — even expelled students have launched lawsuits.

Contract work also has grown more prevalent, and regulatory oversight has ballooned. Kaesebier deals with the EEOC “all the time,” as well as with immigration services and with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Route to present position: Kaesebier is a 1971 graduate of the University of Illinois. She received her law degree in 1983 from Valparaiso University School of Law, graduating first in her class. Later, she was an associate at Barnes&Thornburg from 1983 through 1992, and an associate professor of law at Valparaiso from 1986 through 1988. She joined Notre Dame in 1988 as an assistant general counsel and ascended through the ranks until her promotion to general counsel in 1995.

Personal: Kaesebier is a native of Lincoln, Ill. She and her husband, Dean, are the parents of two daughters: Tara, 35, and Joy, 33. Her spare time is devoted to golf, boating and reading.

Last book and movie: “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream,” by Barack Obama, and “The Bucket List.”

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