Adapting to the Times: A Big Law School Gift With an Eye on a Changing World

photo:  littlenySTOCK/shutterstock

photo:  littlenySTOCK/shutterstock

It could well be that the recent drama surrounding Donald Trump's "fixer" Michael Cohen has reinforced the stereotype of the attorney as a wily, hard-charging, and ethically dubious ambulance-chaser.

Of course, many lawyers would disagree with this perception. Not only would they argue that the stereotype is unfair—after all, most people dislike lawyers until they actually need one—it's also anachronistic. Among the skills that lawyers actually need to survive today is the ability to navigate an increasingly globalized and technology-driven world. 

That's certainly the view of a wealthy donor (and lawyer) named Frank Guarini. 

The former U.S. representative, diplomat, and war hero recently gave the NYU School of Law $20 million to support the Guarini Institute for Global Legal Studies ("Guarini Institute.") 

Guarini received a J.D. from NYC School of Law in 1950 as well as an LL.M in 1955. A longtime financial supporter of the law school, Guarini has previously funded the Frank J. Guarini Center for Environmental, Energy, and Land Use Law, the Frank J. Guarini Leaders in Government Service Institute, and the Guarini Government Lecture.

Commenting on the gift, Guarini said, "our increasingly international world needs lawyers who can meet the complex challenges presented by a changing global and technological landscape. Lawyers continue to be the business facilitators central to understanding other countries that knit the world together."

Guarini's quote succinctly summarizes the two main drivers, globalism and technology, behind the law field's dizzying evolution. I'd like to drill down on both, starting with globalism.

Despite President Trump's nationalistic bluster, the globalization genie is out of the bottle. There's no shortage of evidence corroborating this point. Simply flip through the Wall Street Journal or consider this recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City citing the rapid growth of U.S. export markets in the developing nations of East Asia and Latin America.

The takeaway here is clear: American organizations need lawyers attuned to the unique regulatory, business, diplomatic, and cultural demands of international markets.

Guarini understand this—and he isn't the only law school donor attuned to changes in the legal profession caused not just by globalization, but other trends. 

A few years ago, J.B. Pritzker and his wife, M.K. Pritzker, made a historic $100 million gift to his alma mater, Northwestern University, to advance its School of Law's study of law, business, and technology, and public interest initiatives in the areas of civil and human rights.  

And around the same time, Philadelphia native, lawyer and financier Charles Widger gave his alma mater, Villanova University, $25 million to support, among other things, Villanova Law's commitment to adding business courses and professional development programs.

The Guarini Institute, meanwhile, will help students navigate this changing global landscape by providing a "platform for in-depth, interdisciplinary study of transnational legal and regulatory issues."

Central to this goal is support for initiatives like the Global Fellows Program, the Jean Monnet Center for International and Regional Economic Justice, scholarship of the Law School’s global and international faculty, and the Emile Noël Lecture Series, which explores the current state of the European Union.

The institute will also support NYU Law Abroad. This particular facet should come as no surprise, given Guarini's CV and recent philanthropy.

He received a Naval Commendation Medal and three Battle Stars for his naval service in the Pacific Theater during World War II. In his subsequent professional life, he met with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping as a member of the first trade mission in 1979. He served as a delegate to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in London. And he currently chairs the board of trustees of John Cabot University in Rome.  

He's clearly learned quite a bit after a lifetime traversing the globe, and these experiences have influenced his giving. Last year, Guarini gave $10 million to support Dartmouth’s off-campus and foreign study programs.

"I hope this increased endowment will inspire more students to travel abroad," said Guarini, Class of '46, said at the time. "There is no better way to promote peace in our world than for young people to immerse themselves in different cultures, getting to know new people and expanding their worldview firsthand."

Which brings me to the second driver behind Guarini's gift to NYU, which he calls the changing "technological landscape." Funding will enable the institute to explore the "technology-driven transformation of legal services and global legal practice."

This is important stuff. In a recent post looking at a big higher-ed gift earmarked for studying "the future of work," I noted that even lawyers are feeling the pinch as new technology has automated the discovery process of going through myriad pages of documents. 

The technology genie, of course, is also out of the bottle, and the repercussions are both unknown and potentially ominous for a profession that's already seen shrinking job opportunities. This uncertainty only underscores the importance of the first thematic component of Guarini's gift to NYU. AI may be able to scan billions of pages of legal records, but (at least for the time being), robots can't, to quote Guarini, act as "business facilitators" in a complex global legal landscape. 

Add it all up, and Guarini joins donors like Pritzker and Widger in giving big to ensure the field of law effectively adapts to meet what Guarini characterizes as the "evolving demands of law practice and of society more broadly."