Serving executives in higher education throughout the United States. Admitted New York and Connecticut bars.

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Adding Value

The aim of our legal practice is to add tangible value for our executive employment clients.

Presented with a proposed contract for a College or University President or Head of School, there are numerous ways in which we can improve the overall “package” for the benefit of individual clients. Between the various types of contract improvements, it is not uncommon for us to add thousands of dollars of specific value to the original contract offer.

Many of these improvements are purely monetary. For instance, if there is little room for an increase in the base salary at offer, there may be untapped (and tax deferred) retirement benefits which can be added to improve the client’s overall compensation. Also, if a college or independent school balks at some specific benefit we are seeking, the institution may be open to a number of other potential emoluments, ranging, as only some examples, from a performance bonus to a sign-on bonus to an end-of-the-term bonus.

Other types of contractual improvements – the addition of indemnities, faculty “Retreat Rights” and earned sabbaticals, just to name a few – also have real value, although putting a precise numerical measure on them may be somewhat more elusive.

And the importance of a good contract for a first-time University President or Head of School cannot be overstated, since the right type of initial agreement provides the basis for achieving a proper and more generous renewal contract.

All too often, the response to my question to a successful sitting College President or Head of School as to who represented them in connection with their first contract is: “Oh, I didn’t have an attorney” or “I took what I was offered” or “I used the local lawyer who did my will (or my house closing) to look over the school’s proposed draft”. This almost certainly means that the current contract is not merely inadequate, but of little assistance – and sometimes is actually deleterious – to obtaining an optimum renewal agreement.

I am grateful for the clients who have relied on our legal services, and Lisa and I are particularly proud of those contract negotiations where the value we have added has been a happy multiple of our legal fees.

Of course, clients, whatever their level of sophistication, may be fearful of runaway lawyer billing. These clients deserve to be reassured that they will not be presented with an outsized or unfair bill for legal services. Because we have done sufficient work with the various types of contracts for senior academic leaders (e.g., an initial College President or Head of School contract; a renewal agreement for a successful sitting President or Head of School; the documentation of a termination agreement), we know the range of what each type of agreement will cost in terms of legal fees. Accordingly, we are customarily willing to “cap” our fees within that range (it is also worth noting that, in the majority of instances, the educational institutions make a contribution to the client’s legal fees, although that is never guaranteed).

In the next “Perspectives”, I will look at situations where we represent the educational institution itself rather than the individual executive.

About the Author

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George Birnbaum

Since 1980, sophisticated business people have relied on George to apply the meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and devotion to his clients he learned from fabled trial lawyer Louis Nizer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, George has over 35 years of distinguished deal-making, litigation, mediation and arbitration experience which he has used to negotiate high-stakes agreements for senior executives and select business clients throughout the United States.