Analyzing former Rutgers GC’s performance in wake of basketball coach scandal

What in-house counsel can learn from the fallout that cost John Wolf his job

Robert L. Barchi, president of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, announced the firing of the school’s athletic director, Tim Pernetti, in an April 5 press conference, two days after Rutgers had fired its head men’s basketball coach, Mike Rice, for physically and verbally abusing players, including the use of gay slurs, while conducting practices over two seasons.

In the press conference, Barchi thanked Pernetti for his service, and read Pernetti’s letter of resignation to the assembled media. Pernetti’s letter stated, in part, that Pernetti had previously wanted Rutgers to fire Rice, but that “Rutgers decided to follow a process involving university lawyers, human resources professionals, and outside counsel. Following review of the independent investigative report, the consensus was that university policy would not justify dismissal.”

Impatient internal clients are nothing new to in-house lawyers. We often get called into situations at the last minute and are expected to come up with instant answers. The reasons our clients give us for a quick turnaround are often more imagined than real. Pernetti did have a real reason for not wanting to wait for a final written report from Lacey before taking action on Rice, though I don’t know that the reason was a good one. Pernetti wanted Rice’s suspension to end, and Rice to return to the bench, in time for Rutgers’ first Big East conference game of the season.

Nor do clients always want legal advice. Ignorance can be bliss. It has been my experience that many internal clients do not like to try to weigh legal advice against business considerations in making decisions. I imagine Pernetti was much happier sitting and listening to Wolf and/or Lacey boil down all of the facts and applicable laws into a couple simple bullet points, then asking them what he should do, or asking them why legally he couldn’t do what he wanted. That is, if Pernetti ever actually considered what the lawyers had to say.

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Eric Esperne

Eric Esperne is counsel for Dell Services and is located in Canton, Mass. He has more than 15 years experience as in-house counsel for government,...

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