Why does Pennsylvania use private law firms? Highlight of Penn State College


the Pennsylvania Transparency Tracker It is an ongoing effort by Spotlight PA to document and share the ways in which the university is, or is not, transparent with the community. Due to its special “state related” designation, Pennsylvania is not subject to open records laws beyond public disclosure of basic financial information. The goal of the Transparency Tracker is to provide insight not only into the reporting process for Spotlight PA but also into how Penn State responds to routine media inquiries.

STATE COLLEGE — During fiscal year 2022, the state of Pennsylvania paid more than $4.3 million to five private law firms — Ballard Spahr, Duane Morris, McGuireWoods, McQuaide Blasko, and Saul Ewing — according to information provided to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The university maintains private attorneys as well as its own 26-member Office of General Counsel tasked with providing “legal advice and representation to the Board of Trustees, the President and other administrators in their capacity as agents managing the business of the University,” according to the university. Office website.

The internal legal unit operates in fiscal year 2023 with a budget of $11.4 million, according to information provided to the state.

Spotlight PA has previously reported on the lack of transparency in the use of private law firms before Former Democratic Governor Tom Wolf And state legislators. For these reports, the newsroom used open records requests to better understand this practice. However, similar applications to Penn State are not subject to open records laws due to the university’s special status as a “state related” institution.

Interested in learning more about how Penn State uses private law firms, Spotlight PA asked the following questions to Penn State:

  1. In what circumstances would Penn State pay for an outside counsel to represent them or provide legal advice instead of using the university’s office of general counsel?

  2. What are the policies governing the approval of contracts between the university and external organizations? Likewise, in what cases does the Board of Trustees have insight into or decision-making powers about licensing contracts with outside organizations?

Penn State responded in an email:

“Management of the university’s legal function rests with the vice president and general counsel, who report to both the university president and the board of trustees,” a university spokesperson wrote. “The State of Pennsylvania shall appoint outside counsel on litigation and such other matters as the Vice President and General Counsel determines to be necessary or appropriate under the circumstances.

“With 24 campuses, 90,000 students, and nearly 35,000 employees, the services provided by the Office of General Counsel are critical to operations. Like most other universities across the country, for example, the Penn State Office of General Counsel deals with a wide range of of legal matters, including licensing, affiliation agreements, insurance, real estate, zoning and land use, intellectual property rights, affirmative action, employment, safety, research, hospital facilities, licensing and accreditation, federal contracts, ADA compliance, conflicts of interest, airport regulations, environmental concerns – to name a few Not limited to.

Seeking clarification, Spotlight PA followed up with this question:

  1. What criteria do the vice president and general counsel use to determine when outside legal counsel is “necessary or appropriate”?

Penn State responded in an email:

“The Vice President and General Counsel make these decisions based on their professional judgment after evaluating the relevant facts and circumstances,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email.

Later, a university spokesperson sent Spotlight PA a link to the site The policy governing the Office of General Counselwhich states: “The General Counsel is responsible for determining when certain matters require the appointment of outside counsel. Attorneys within the Office of General Counsel will maintain and supervise the representation of outside counsel.”

Based on that information, here’s what you need to know:

Decisions about when and how Pennsylvania hires offshore law firms are made internally. The public does not have much knowledge of these decisions, except when an outside company is mentioned in court filings or when the university provides information to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. However, these deposits are submitted to the administration at least six months after the private law firms have been paid.

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