Northwestern’s general counsel Philip Harris brings years of University ties to position

Philip L. Harris.

Source: Northwestern University

Philip L. Harris.

Isabella Jiao, Reporter

Philip Harris was just appointed vice president and general counsel at Northwestern, but he said he still finds himself at the same Burger King as his days as an undergraduate student.

Previously a member of the Board of Trustees for 25 years, Harris said in some ways, the University remains the same school that led him to continue to serve NU after he graduated. Although he noted impressive changes since his time as a student, such as the increasing diversity of the student body, he said he is surprised the Rebecca Crown Center — home to his new office — has remained the same.

“It’s interesting to think that I was once a student going to Burger King for lunch and now I’m in the administration and still going to Burger King for lunch,” Harris said.

Now, Harris said he is ready to take on issues at NU on more day-to-day basis as an administrator. In his new job, he serves as attorney for the University and manages a variety of legal problems such as employment issues, workers’ compensation claims and issues related to the football program. Most importantly, he will help to anticipate potential legal problems and work on preemptive measures, he said.

“We are not just responding to the needs of the University, but we are proactive in identifying ways to move forward,” Harris said.

Harris comes in after working at Jenner & Block, where he represented large companies as the lead attorney in commercial disputes — experience that Harris said will serve him well as the chief legal officer for NU.

“I’ve spent most of my first week on the job listening to the members of my staff, to the president, to the president’s team, to determine how we can make this office better,” Harris said.

Nim Chinniah, NU’s executive vice president who worked with Harris when he was on the Board of Trustees, described Harris as a “very talented lawyer” who is “extremely thoughtful” and particularly in tune with U.S. higher education.

“(He has) great intellectual capacity combined with an abiding love for Northwestern,” Chinniah said.

After receiving his law degree from the University of Chicago, Harris first worked on cases in Iowa, his home state, and then in Chicago. Harris said during his time as a law school student all he wanted to do was to try cases.

“My goal was to become a really top-notch trial attorney,” Harris said.

However, since 2008, his career has morphed from being a trial attorney to counseling clients. To Harris, though, offering counsel is just as fulfilling as defending in court.

“It’s exciting when you feel that you’ve helped someone, ” Harris said. “(The clients) are very grateful, and that’s very rewarding.”

Harris also has spent a lot of his professional life focused on diversity and inclusion in large law firms. The administration’s vision for increasing diversity at NU, he said, is one of the biggest reasons he’s excited to be part of the administrative team.

Chinniah said he was “thrilled” for Northwestern to have Harris as the general counsel and expected to learn a lot working beside a great colleague and friend.

“He is the right person at the right time for us,” Chinniah said.

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