“I didn’t have a class on how to practice law for a university during a pandemic,” says Cliff Iler. But since March 2020, the deputy general counsel for the faculty, students, and research group of the University of Kentucky Office of Legal Counsel in Lexington has gathered a few ideas for what such a course might look like. The central theme? “Pivot. Don’t panic.” Another theme: “You can recover from a mistake. You cannot recover from indecision.”
Though the university as a whole is Iler’s client, he considers each individual he supports and advises as his responsibility. “I don’t meet with the university,” he explains. “I and the other members of my team work with the people who make things happen day to day.” Those people include the provost and vice president for research. They also include faculty, staff, and students within UK’s sixteen colleges. “To a certain extent,” the counsel says, “I have thousands and thousands of university clients.”
UK’s International Center also comes under Iler’s purview. While in 2019 that meant a trip to Spain, visiting entities that support UK’s study abroad programs, in 2020 it’s meant creative legal work in response to COVID-19. Legal upheaval for the university’s 1,600 international students and hundreds of international faculty and staff—as well as its study abroad programs—fell to Iler. His team ran a full-court press, responding to, and trying to pull ahead of, concerns with exchange agreements, distance learning, and taxes.
“There are faculty and graduate students who couldn’t come to the US, but we needed them to teach,” Iler says, referring to one immediate issue. Beyond basic tax codes, sanctions can come into play too. The university also found itself having to cancel certain contracts due to the pandemic. In thirty years, the counsel says ruefully, he had never looked at force majeure clauses, which enable parties to terminate a contract if they cannot perform due to an “act of God” or some other unexpected event—like a pandemic.
Similar to universities around the world, UK discovered itself in a crisis, and Iler began looking. “We were doing our best to understand laws and regulations for dozens of countries, even as these regulations changed in response to COVID,” he says. Iler cautioned his team even as it did its best research, risk assessment, and decision-making: “Don’t let fear of making a mistake stop you from moving forward. You may stumble but keep moving.”
Early on, Iler developed these leadership ideas—keep moving and pivot—while playing basketball in high school and college. “I was not the star. I was not the leading scorer,” he says of his basketball career. “My job was to do what it took to help the team be successful.” For his current team of five—two senior associate general counsel, one associate general counsel, a paralegal, and an administrative assistant—Iler continues to lean on the same principles. Adequate resources and clear roles are also paramount. And once those roles are established, Iler gets out of the way and lets his team perform. Though he runs conflict interference and defends his team, he does not micromanage. The deputy general counsel views himself as a player/coach because he acknowledges, “The team is the focus, not just my individual success.”
“To a certain extent, I have thousands and thousands of university clients.”
Iler’s leadership, and the cohesion of his team, were recently on display during a seamless transition to remote work. “I’m going to brag on my team,” he says. “They have performed well during the pandemic. They rose to the occasion.”
Iler came out of undergrad with an English and economics double major, eventually assessing his options and deciding on law. At an Atlanta firm, he practiced product liability, and while he enjoyed trial law, he says, “In the end it was two parties fighting over money.” He shifted to an academic medical center, and then, in 2009, the time came to return to his home state. The University of Kentucky offered him a position with the Office of Legal Counsel supporting the university’s healthcare colleges and hospitals.
In 2018, he transitioned to his current position, which focuses on faculty, students, and research. Iler says he enjoys this current role more than any other he’s held. He summarizes his expansive duties, saying, “Our goal is to promote opportunity for students and faculty.” Being surrounded by learning—while he continues to learn himself—only adds to his satisfaction in his position.
“I don’t know if I can remember my life before COVID,” the deputy general counsel says, laughing. But his role has always been one requiring response to constant flux. On any given day, he says, “I think I’m going to clear things off my to-do list. Instead, I’m reacting.” He constantly reprioritizes. With perhaps only a short presentation on the calendar for a given day, Iler will finalize a settlement, respond to a discovery requests from outside counsel, address issues related to the university’s accreditation body, and advise on questions around virtual training, criminal trespass, and a challenging faculty member.
Clearly defined right and wrong decisions rarely exist in Iler’s experience. Instead, he chooses the best course of action. “You are in the middle of the gray,” he says. By following William Thro—a mentor and general counsel for the university—Iler has been trained to view himself as more than an attorney. Though he provides plenty of advice about law, he is also expected to be a counselor and a problem-solver. “I get to the result while managing risks,” he says.
If Iler took classes right now, he says they would be in history or English. But that’s hardly a priority. Instead, he plans to continue his education and research into the fictitious but vital class focused on the convergence of law, higher education, and pandemics.
Steptoe & Johnson PLLC:
“Cliff impresses with his resourcefulness, recall, and responsiveness. Successful in the private sector, Cliff has excelled as counsel to academia. Cliff guides UK in a variety of practice areas. He is terrific with outside counsel.”
–Jeff Phillips, Member