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Penn State Law offers pathways to legal careers in higher education

Higher education law is a growing field with exciting careers for graduates interested in diverse legal issues, including academic freedom, Title IX and civil rights, federal contracts and government relations, student privacy, intellectual property, labor relations, risk management, and many more. Penn State Law in University Park offers students multiple pathways to legal careers in higher education.
Cori Smith at Penn State Office of General Counsel

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Cori Smith was trying to figure out how best to combine her interests in the legal field and higher education. She had been working as the Title IX education and compliance coordinator at Hamilton College and knew she wanted to pursue a juris doctor. However, as she was visiting Penn State Law in University Park in spring 2019 during an open house event for admitted students, she didn’t yet know how she was going to shape her passions into a rewarding career path.

At the open house event, Smith struck up a conversation with a law professor who was seated at the same table. That professor was Keith Elkin, associate dean for academic success and professor of legal skills at Penn State Law, who happened to teach a course on higher education law practice. Their conversation helped point Smith toward educational opportunities and professional pathways that she had not considered before.

“Dean Elkin was the person who explained how I can connect those two interests while in law school, including taking his class in higher education law as well as the many other opportunities available at Penn State,” Smith said. “That conversation really helped me decide on Penn State Law.”

In addition to Elkin’s course, Penn State Law offers six joint degrees with the College of Education and a wide range of internships and externships, at Penn State and beyond, through which students can develop legal experience in the area of higher education.

Joint Degree Programs

Penn State Law offers six joint degree programs with the College of Education, including three specific to higher education: a J.D. combined with a Master of Education (M.Ed.), Doctor of Education (D.Ed.), or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in higher education.

For those who choose not to add an additional degree program to their J.D., Penn State Law offers the ability to enroll in individual, graduate-level courses across campus that relate to the students’ interests.

"Because Penn State Law allows J.D. students to take up to 12 credits of non-law, graduate-level coursework, I was granted permission to enroll in a higher education course within Penn State's College of Education,” said Dale Roeck, a rising third-year law student. “The broad range of coursework and opportunities available here have helped me further my interest in higher education law."

  Dale Roeck
Dale Roeck, a rising 3L at Penn State Law. IMAGE: Provided

Penn State General Counsel

One of the experiential opportunities available to Penn State Law students is an externship with the Penn State Office of General Counsel (OGC). At OGC, students can learn about an array of legal issues facing higher education institutions—subjects such as academic freedom, federal contracts and government relations, student privacy, intellectual property, labor relations, risk management, and many more.

Legal externs in OGC also have the unique opportunity to learn from Penn State Vice President and General Counsel Stephen Dunham, who is also an adjunct professor of law at Penn State Law, where he teaches a course on professional responsibility.

Dunham earned a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1969 and, following his graduation, served as a law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Stanley A. Weigel in San Francisco. He has extensive experience at law firms and law schools, including as faculty at the University of Minnesota Law School where he taught courses in contracts, trial practice, complex litigation, and higher education law. He has served as general counsel at three universities--the University of Minnesota (1982 to 1988), Johns Hopkins University (2005 to 2012), and Penn State (since 2012).

"Steve Dunham is a pioneer and sort of a rock star in the field of higher education law," Elkin said. "When he goes to the big national conferences, he always draws a crowd around him."

Two Penn State Law Class of 2022 graduates—Smith and Taylor Zelman—completed an externship with Penn State OGC while in law school, and Roeck will begin an externship there in fall 2022.

  Stephen Dunham
Penn State Vice President and General Counsel Stephen Dunham.
IMAGE: Penn State

Externships Across Penn State

Penn State Law, located on the University Park campus, has close proximity to numerous offices that handle the myriad legal issues facing an institution with a massive student population. In addition to OGC, Penn State Law students have completed externships in offices across campus, including:

  • Penn State Student Legal Services;
  • Office of Student Conduct;
  • NCAA Compliance Office;
  • Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response; and
  • Office of Ethics and Compliance within the Office of Sponsored Programs.

Getting hands-on experience at university offices is an invaluable opportunity for aspiring higher ed law professionals. Numerous students pointed to the “robust experiential programs,” such as externships, as an important aspect of their legal education.

"Penn State Law has helped me explore the field of higher education by having many opportunities and resources that I can take advantage of [such as] having externships with legal entities on campus readily available," said Taylor Washington, a rising third-year law student who completed an externship with the NCAA Compliance Office. "Through these pathways, I have been able to cultivate my interest in the field of higher education law."

  Taylor Washington
Taylor Washington, a rising 3L at Penn State Law. IMAGE: Provided

Externships Beyond Penn State

Although there are a wealth of opportunities on the University Park campus, law students interested in higher education can also look beyond Penn State. Students have completed, or will complete, the following internships and externships:

  • Summer associate on the Higher Education Practice Group at Troutman Pepper;
  • Legal intern in the Office of General Counsel at the State University of New York (SUNY);
  • Summer intern for the Student Conduct Institute at SUNY;
  • Law clerk for the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA); and
  • Summer associate on the Higher Education Law Team at Reed Smith.

Whether on campus or beyond, Penn State Law works with students to find the right opportunities to advance their career interests.

"Penn State Law helped me to explore this field by introducing me to job opportunities and connecting me with alumni who work in this field," said Morgan Harrington, ‘22 who completed an internship with SUNY OGC.

  Morgan Harrington
Morgan Harrington, Penn State Law J.D. Class of 2022. IMAGE: Provided

Higher Education Law Practice

Elkin’s course, Higher Education Law Practice, is beneficial for all law students because of the many relevant and interesting legal questions that it addresses. However, those with a specific interest in higher education find significant value in the course as preparation for their careers.

“One of the things you always tell young lawyers is to know the client—you can give better legal advice if you understand their business,” Dunham said. “Taking a higher ed course like Dean Elkin’s course is a great way to learn about the higher education industry, and that’s important for the day-to-day practice of law.”

The course is designed in part as a simulation: Elkin puts students in the roles of general counsel and other legal advisers for Penn State and has them actively engage in discussions and activities related to topical legal issues facing universities.

In fall 2022, students in his course will explore the following topics, among others:

  • How universities should handle COVID-related issues such as vaccination policies;
  • Whether universities may use tracking applications to monitor student attendance in class;
  • Whether and how universities should remove symbols of white supremacy on campus;
  • How universities should handle students who protest and disrupt speakers on campus; and
  • Whether a professor’s racist remarks are protected by academic freedom.

For some students, Elkin's course propels them toward their career goals.

"I was first introduced to higher education law in Dean Elkin’s course, and from that point on, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in higher education law," said Zelman, ‘22 who completed an internship with SUNY Student Conduct Institute and externships with Penn State Office of Student Legal Services and Penn State OGC. "Through externships and other experiential opportunities, my time at Penn State Law has prepared me for a career in higher education law."

  Taylor Zelman
Taylor Zelman, Penn State Law J.D. Class of 2022. IMAGE: Provided

A Growing Legal Field

Dunham, during his four decades of distinguished experience in the field of higher education law, has seen a tremendous rise in universities’ need for lawyers and legal professionals.

“If you just look at the number of lawyers who participate in national and professional organizations as lawyers for colleges and universities, it’s gone from almost none to several thousand,” Dunham said.

There are many paths that students can take who are interested in legal careers in higher education. Recent Penn State Law graduates have secured employment as:

  • Associate attorneys in “BigLaw” higher education departments;
  • Title IX coordinators at universities;
  • Athletic compliance officers;
  • Assistant vice president for student affairs;
  • Vice provost at a university;
  • Law school post-doctoral fellow; and
  • Assistant professor of education.

Smith, now three years after her first encounter with Elkin at Penn State Law’s open house, is following her path. She completed her J.D. from Penn State Law in May 2022 and, following her bar passage, is set to begin her career on the higher education legal team at Reed Smith, a global law firm headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

"I am so grateful for the opportunities Penn State Law presented for me to build a career in higher education law practice from day one," Smith said. "Higher ed law opportunities, structurally, at Penn State Law are above and beyond what other law schools offer."

  Cori Smith
Cori Smith, Penn State Law J.D. Class of 2022. IMAGE: Provided
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