Teachable Moments

Karen McAndrew schools us on higher education law

Published in 2016 New England Super Lawyers magazine

By David Levine on October 18, 2016


Karen McAndrew is one of the few attorneys who has had lengthy discussions of English poetry. In court. 

The partner at Dinse Knapp & McAndrew, in Burlington, Vermont, oversees a unique practice area: college and university law. While much of her practice concerns such issues as faculty tenure, student discipline, and employment issues, every now and then she also gets to exercise the literary chops she honed as an English major at Vassar College.

“We tried a case involving a faculty member who didn’t receive tenure,” she says. “There was criticism of her lectures, and I remember cross–examining her about John Donne. There was also some Sidney and Spenser thrown in. That was fun.” 

Dinse Knapp already had a longstanding relationship with nearby Middlebury College when McAndrew joined the firm in 1971. “We have been counsel to Middlebury for at least 70 years,” she says. “We now represent almost all of the colleges in the state, and my partner works for colleges around the country.”

One unique aspect of higher education law is “town-and-gown relations” between the institution and the community. “Residential colleges often run whole towns or villages,” says McAndrew, 72. “Most of their real estate is exempt from property taxes, yet they are big users of town services. Many make payments in lieu of taxes, or in other ways contribute to the town. … In addition, students may be living off campus, and neighbors may complain, so it is important to work on those relationships.” 

The very size of colleges and universities can invite litigation. 

“In Vermont, the colleges are among the larger employers in the state, and that makes them attractive as targets,” she says. “People don’t like losing their job, so they tend to sue. There has been an increasing amount of litigation against colleges and universities.” Much of that also stems from Title IX of the comprehensive 1972 education legislation, so much of her day-to-day work, she says, “is walking the client through compliance with Title IX and other federal and state regulations.”

The plus side? “In general, you are dealing with intelligent, thoughtful, well-educated clients who engage in interesting back-and-forth with you,” she says. “The fun part is getting to know the different cultures and histories of the institutions. Each has its own identity and unique way of doing things, which is often different from the corporate world.”

Case in point: Several years ago, a commercial insurance company contacted her after a college she represents was challenged by a student who complained about his grade. “The insurance company asked, ‘Why not just change the grade? It doesn’t cost you anything,’” she remembers. “I said, ‘You don’t get it. It doesn’t work that way.’ Here it is often more about principles than the dollars involved. It’s not just about the money.” 

Spoken like a true English major. 



McAndrew’s favorite legal fiction

“I generally don’t read lawyer books after hours—busman’s holiday,” says McAndrew. “But no one, and that includes me, has ever forgotten Atticus Finch—although I’m not yet ready for the more nuanced version in Go Set a Watchman

“But since my practice is civil and not criminal, Bleak House seems to come to mind more often, as discovery becomes impossibly lengthy and tangential, and it takes forever to get to trial. I’ve referred to several of my cases as ‘Jarndyce.’ 

“On screen, of course, you can hardly beat Robert Duvall in the movie version of A Civil Action.”

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