From Politics to School Policies: Profile chats with Purdue University’s First In-house Counsel

Steven Schultz developed his position from the ground up, and has his hands in everything from university policy to working with the city on revitalizing a major campus thoroughfare

Steven Schultz knew he wanted to be a lawyer the moment he donned a stovepipe hat to play Abraham Lincoln in his fourth grade school play. Embodying one of American history’s greatest attorneys set Schultz on a path that eventually led him to become the first in-house counsel at Purdue University. Here, Schultz shares some of the obstacles and initiatives he tackled in his first two years in the newly created position.

How did you get your start in law?

Steven Schultz: I was interested in American history at a young age and had an appreciation for the role lawyers played in making laws. When I started working for the governor of Indiana, that solidified what I should do.

While working in politics, did you ever consider running for office?

Schultz: I think any young person who gets involved and watches policymakers in action considers it. For me, it was intriguing, but I was able to have that experience—just in the behind-the-scenes way.

What is the main difference between working for a law firm versus working as in-house counsel?

Schultz: In a law firm, you are a valued counselor, but you are called to help with the legal issues or transactions after the issues have been formulated. I came across a quote from the former general counsel of Northwestern University as I was making the transition into higher education: “Being in-house counsel gives you early access to decisions in progress.” Also, being in-house, there is a premium placed on spotting the issues and making risk-based decisions in a more rapid time frame.

It seems like a daunting task. What was your first impression when considering the job?

Schultz: My first impression was definitely that it was daunting. I had worked for Purdue’s president, Mitchell Daniels, when he was governor, and he was the one who suggested me as a candidate for the role. I knew President Daniels would create a lot of challenging opportunities, and the learning curve that would appear by virtue of me being new to higher education. My other impression was that Purdue had been well served for more than a century by the law firm Stuart & Branigin. I knew I would need to maintain that valued relationship.

How would you describe your working relationship with Stuart & Branigin?

Schultz: The firm is very supportive and committed to Purdue—it’s sort of in its DNA to care about the university. We communicate regularly once a week.

What immediate responsibilities did you take on as the new in-house counsel at Purdue University?

Schultz: Prior to my arrival, there hadn’t been an internal point of contact or anyone to oversee all of the legal issues affecting the university. At first, one of my responsibilities was trying to understand the big issues affecting the university. President Daniels asked me to do a review of the policies. He wanted me to ask three questions: Are the policies clear and consistent? Are they reasonable? Are they necessary in the first place? There were 129 policies, and we worked with each one of the units throughout the university to reduce them to seventy-five.

As the in-house counsel of a large university, you must have a multitude of tasks. How do you divide your time?

Schultz: I spend at least 50 percent of my time on major projects that take on the university initiatives, 25 percent of the time supporting our Title IX compliance, 20 percent of my time supporting contracts and procurement, and the other 5 percent is spread between monitoring litigation, case management and evaluation, and working with the public records function.

Does that include the planned revitalization of State Street? What has your role been with that project?

Schultz: Absolutely. We are looking at launching procurement soon, so as of late I have been spending a lot of time with that project. We are getting ready to go out into the market to invite participation in a bid process, but before we do that we have to get board and city council approvals, which have involved an intricate and interesting collaboration with the city of West Lafayette.

The project has been in the planning stages for quite a long time. It’s going to make this major thoroughfare look and feel cozier, pedestrian friendly, and sustainable.

We had this interesting legal question come up: should Purdue as an instrumentality of the state consent to its being annexed by the city of West Lafayette? Our board of trustees debated this for awhile. We didn’t object to being annexed; we said, let’s take this opportunity to create a joint board consisting of three Purdue representatives and three city representatives and share common oversight. The State Street revitalization will be governed by this joint board.

How does it feel to work at an institution so close to home?

Schultz: My mom and dad were married while they were at Purdue. He played football and basketball at the university. Growing up, we would go back for football games. My parents were thrilled that I was the first in-house counsel at their alma mater. They have a lot of memories at Lafayette and Purdue. It is just special to them.