Steady as She Goes
Leslie Winner takes in stride her responsibilities as top legal counsel for all 16 colleges of The University of North Carolina
Published in 2007 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
on January 22, 2007
Updated on July 15, 2020
When Leslie Winner took the LSAT, she was one of only two women in a gymnasium filled with young men. Back in the early ’70s, law was not a profession typically receptive to women.
Sitting in an outdoor restaurant at the edge of downtown Charlotte on a glorious fall day, Winner eats sparingly as she revels in the beautiful weather. She is back in town to work today and will soon return to her Chapel Hill office. Winner is on the road a lot, but she has to be: She’s responsible for the legal aspects of what is essentially a $6 billion budget with 45,000 employees and 190,000 students. Because education law isn’t confined to one facet, the depth of her legal knowledge must span many different aspects—intellectual property, real property, criminal, benefits, academic, contract, employment and personnel, health and safety—the list goes on and on.
For some it would be a huge burden—not for Winner. Though she takes it seriously, the scope of the task doesn’t faze her.
“Of course, I don’t have to do it all personally,” Winner says in her low-key manner. “But I do have to understand it.”
The Important Things
When Winner talks about her career, she speaks of being fortunate. “I have indeed been lucky as a lawyer to have always had clients I believed in.”
Her friends and fellow attorneys don’t see her success as a by-product of luck. They say hard work and a natural inclination toward the legal profession are the qualities that have made her one of the profession’s stars. “She has had a significant impact on the state,” says Brad Wilson, general counsel at BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina, and immediate past chairman of the UNC board of governors.
Persuading her to talk law is relatively simple. Persuading her to talk about herself is more difficult. What she will talk about is her favorite subject: her teenage daughter, Lilian Ilana Schorr.
Winner’s business face disintegrates when her daughter’s name pops into the conversation. She speaks animatedly about Lily’s future. It’s obvious she’s emotionally vested, not only in her child’s education, but also in the educational issues of tomorrow.
“The blossoming of online education is going to be great for access,” she predicts, “but it also raises academic concerns. There are a lot of legal issues embedded in [online education].” Those issues include protection of intellectual property rights, development of foolproof testing procedures and creation of online standards—changes that will shape the way college students learn in the future.
Wilson says she’s the right person to help forge tomorrow’s path. “A reflection of her ability and character is that so many people trust her and trust her judgment,” he says.
Almost every phase of Winner’s legal career has prepared her for her role as vice president and general counsel to The University of North Carolina’s 16-campus system. From a landmark civil rights case to serving education as both an elected official and an attorney, Winner’s career trajectory has been both straight to the top—and close to the heart of what she believes is most important in life.
G.K. Butterfield, a U.S. congressman and Winner’s close friend, characterizes her as an individual with strong moral convictions and incomparable legal skills.
“Leslie is probably one of the most scholarly lawyers I have ever worked with,” Butterfield says, “yet she has the common touch.”
Born and raised in Asheville, Winner completed her undergraduate work at Brown and received her law degree from Northeastern School of Law. She clerked for Judge James McMillan before going to work for Legal Services of Southern Piedmont.
From her work with low-income clients to private practice with the firm now known as Ferguson, Stein, Chambers, Gresham & Sumter, Winner practiced law with an enduring faith in the equality of all human beings, regardless of their differences. That led her to participate in one of the state’s most significant cases, Thornburg v. Gingles, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The landmark suit challenged the use of at-large elections in various counties around the state in races for the North Carolina General Assembly. Winner says that when she and her colleagues filed the action, “Only four of the 170 members of the NCGA were African-Americans in a state that was about a quarter black in population.”
The case, which took years to wind its way through the court system, resulted in the reshaping of voting districts to include some with black majorities, a move that impelled minority voters to focus on minority candidates. As a result, blacks filled public offices across North Carolina—many for the first time. Winner also filed actions concerning the election methods of several county commissions and elections boards.
Butterfield says others might get the credit for the Gingles case, but that it was Winner who “did the heavy lifting.
“She drafted the legal documents, complaints, lawsuits—did most of the work,” Butterfield says.
Winner divided her law practice largely between two main issues: education and civil rights. In 1992, her election to the North Carolina Senate allowed her to combine her two passions: fairness and knowledge of the law. Winner served six years, during which time she sat on education-related committees, was named majority whip and co-sponsored several education bills.
In 1998, Winner became chief legal counsel for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system, which was a good fit, according to Chief Operating Officer Maurice “Moe” Green, who was the board of education’s attorney. Green says it’s a field of law that encompasses nearly every legal discipline.
“Education lawyers really understand people are passionate about their children’s education,” Green says. One of the biggest challenges for school board attorneys, in Green’s opinion, is that “in education, things happen so quickly. Any given day might see any number of issues coming before you.”
Winner, he says, stands apart from the rest in her field. “Leslie Winner has done it so well and at such high levels—that’s the way she is,” Green says.
In 2000, Winner made the career move to her current position with The University of North Carolina system. In addition to the schools themselves, she also oversees legal issues for the university-administered public television station and its affiliates.
Wilson served on Winner’s selection committee. He says there is no one better suited to the job’s demands.
“She is extraordinarily well-versed in the law—one of the smartest lawyers I’ve ever known,” Wilson says. “She brings an expertise to any subject.”
But, Wilson says, it’s not simply her mastery of the field that makes her a great choice. “I think it’s her ability to be more than ‘just a lawyer,’” he says. “She understands the subtlety of any situation, including personal aspects; how things affect people’s lives are never lost in her analysis.”