Columbia first established an in-house legal department in 1974. Before 1974, an outside law firm acted as counsel to the University. During this period any member of the University Community seeking legal services called directly on outside counsel. Starting in the late 1960's, the cost of this uncontrolled use of outside lawyers became very high.
To control these costs, the inside legal department (now the Office of the General Counsel) has since coordinated all outside legal services. As part of this control, outside law firms can be retained only by the Office of the General Counsel (OGC) and bills for outside legal services will be paid only if the work was initiated or approved by OGC. To assure the integrity and independence of these decisions and of the legal services rendered to the University, the General Counsel reports directly to the President and the Trustees.
OGC represents the legal interests of the entire University, including such geographically separate entities as the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Rockland County, Nevis Laboratories in Westchester County, Reid Hall in Paris, and the entire Columbia Medical Center (formerly Health Sciences campus) in Washington Heights. At present the office consists of the General Counsel, the Deputy General Counsel, 19 Associate General Counsels, an Assistant General Counsel, 3 paralegals, a Director of Budget & Human Resources, business manager, file manager, secretarial and clerical support staff and student help. The entire office resides in Low Library.
The ongoing legal business of the University involves a broad array of services in connection with financings, contracts, trusts and estates, real estate and tax matters, labor and employment issues, commercial litigation, clinical trials, and science and technology agreements and licensing. All OGC attorneys are experienced in handling contract and general business legal matters, and all have a broad capability to handle the great variety of legal problems which arise in the context of a large university with substantial financial interests and real property ownership, in addition to the human problems which arise in the context of a large and diverse community.