Given the recent legal problems that have hit the University—the lawsuit against Thomas Kannam, and the Stephen Morgan name mix-up—the University has been in need of a good lawyer. Since 2007, David Winakor has been that man. As the University’s first General Counsel, he is an invaluable asset to school administration and a legal jack-of-all trades.
Although large institutions often have as many as 15 trained lawyers, smaller institutions usually have significantly smaller law departments or look to external law firms for sporadic legal assistance. In response to the mounting costs of outside legal sources, however, Vice President of Finance and Administration, John Meerts, created the Office of the General Counsel. Winakor’s work falls into three main categories: day-to-day tasks, ensuring that the University’s actions are in accordance with the law, and risk management.
Winakor covers a broad range of tasks on campus that were managed by other University offices prior to his arrival. Although the University was one of the first NESCAC schools to establish an Office of General Counsel, Winakor estimates that about half of these universities have hired their own lawyer as well.
Before Winakor was hired, legal assistance and queries were often complicated by limited communication with outside law firms. Winakor’s presence as a strong legal mind has helped streamline the University’s administration. This includes his emphasis on reexamining university organizational policies, and establishing a code of conduct fully known among school employees.
Winakor cited one extremely relevant case exemplary of his role: the University’s conflict of interest policy. While the policy was already in existence, Winakor saw the opportunity to modernize it, and tie it in with the University’s other core policies.
“My effort was to make sure employees were educated about the policy and comfortable with its parameters,” he said. “I have a feeling that if a policy is any more than two pages, those are more pages than anyone would be willing to read, so we boiled it down, simplified it, developed a system.”
Winakor’s system involved the creation of an adjacent “whistleblower” policy, which, alongside the conflict of interest guidelines, is receiving large amounts of publicity in the Thomas Kannam case. In such litigation issues, Winakor works in conjunction with and leads outside litigation assistance.
Acting as a bridge between outside groups and the administration, Winakor provides a deep understanding of the inner workings of the University, thereby driving the whole operation forward.
“Any time there is a high level hiring or firing I’m involved from a risk management perspective,” Winakor said. “In this case, it turned out that there was a lot more to it. After the investigation, the president, the cabinet, the board, and I decided further action was necessary. Now, the lawyers representing us are working for the University, but I’m the contact. I manage the day-to-day.”
He says his first priority as General Counsel is to evade and prevent the type of conflict that garners such attention. Through organization, mediation, avoidance, and resolution, Winakor’s job is to manage disputes so the University can focus on the student body. Winakor likens his role to another Renaissance man occupation.
“I’m the family doctor,” he said, with a smile.
A graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Law, Winakor’s legal career began long before his arrival at Wesleyan. He spent eight years as the Assistant General Counsel and Vice President for Business Development at The Stanley Works, based out of New Britain, Conn. Prior to that, he practiced commercial and corporate law at a Hartford-based private practice. Winakor also served as a commissioned officer in the United States Army during Operation Desert Storm.
However, despite his distinguished career in law, Winakor has fully embraced the dynamic nature of his current position.
“My colleagues who are still in private practice are going to be dealing predominantly with whatever walks through their door,” Winakor said. “However, it will never be as factually dynamic as this place. With the constant turnover of students, I encounter things everyday that never show up on law school exams.”
Winakor expressed the challenges and excitements of his job at the University in a 2008 article in the Wesleyan Connection Alumni Magazine.
“At Wesleyan, working in a liberal arts environment, there is an endless supply of cutting edge issues,” Winakor wrote. “I’ll never be at a loss for unique challenges to explore and respond to.”