Philip L. Harris

Strategic Consultant and Advisor
Former General Counsel of Northwestern University

Education & Other Stuff

  • J.D.–The University of Chicago Law School – 1983 
  • B.A., Political Science—Northwestern University—1980
    • African-American Student Affairs Award for Highest GPA in the College of Arts and Sciences 
    • Phi Eta Sigma (honorary society) 
    • Certificate in Comparative Politics
  • Admitted: United States District Courts (Illinois and Iowa); United States Courts of Appeals (Seventh and Eighth Circuits); State of Illinois; State of Iowa

By Philip L. Harris

As one of 12 kids to Percy and Lileah Harris, I was blessed with positive role models growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  My father was the first black physician in Cedar Rapids, and my mother was an accomplished pianist who developed a unique relationship with each of her children. In the early 1960s, my family became part of Iowa history when my parents decided to build a home for their family in a neighborhood that never had a black resident. The owner of the property site was a local church in the community.  After a debate over whether the presence of a black family would lower property values, the church voted to sell the property to my parents.  And that is where they raised all 12 children, through college.

I learned from my parents and older siblings that you always have to be prepared to be at your best.  You can never be deterred by what people might think about you.  As a successful physician, my father was amazing at diagnosing problems not only because he was smart, but also because he excelled at listening.  I have found those same traits to be indispensable as a lawyer and advisor.

As a practicing lawyer, my clients have been large, complex entities.  I learned early in my career from listening to clients that cases were really problems (big or small) that required business solutions.  Of course, those solutions were offered in a legal context, but they were only helpful if they were consistent with the client’s business objectives and mission.

In 1997, I was offered the opportunity to represent a Fortune 100 company in recurring litigation under the terms of a variety of fixed fee national and regional retainer agreements.  Before I accepted the opportunity, I reviewed every case file to evaluate what work attorneys had done in the past.  What I discovered was that every case was defended with a “leave no stone unturned” approach.  Much of the work that was done was unnecessary, and certainly not outcome determinative.  I also found that cases were settled after a lot of work already was done in the case.  I told the client that under the retainer program, I would not only reduce their legal fees and expenses, but also reduce their indemnity dollars considerably.  That is exactly what happened.

From that point to today, I have been relentlessly focused on successful outcomes that meet the client’s objective.  I also learned that you could not pick the best lawyer out of crowd based on how much she or he billed.  Rather, the best lawyers learn with experience to be trusted counselors who work closely with their clients, in a confidential environment, to steer them through difficult terrain.

The importance of understanding the client’s objective was truly put to the test when, after 32 years of success in private practice at large law firms, I decided to pursue a career in higher education.  I had gone through the experience of interviewing for the presidency at a large public university.  I was surprised at how far into the process I got, and decided to pursue a career in higher education.  I was offered the job as General Counsel of Northwestern University.  I knew the University well, having served in a leadership capacity on its distinguished Board of Trustees for 25 years.

In higher education– and particularly at large research universities– the difficult terrain is characterized by these and other factors: highly decentralized decision making, disagreements about the extent to which business principles apply to academic environments, laws and policies protecting the confidentiality of information concerning research and students that limit the flow of that information and complicate decision making, tension between notions of paternalism and agency, increasing focus in the plaintiffs’ bar on areas where colleges and universities are vulnerable to litigation that will impact their reputation, and the absence of people of color in key leadership decisions.  There is a tendency outside of higher education to believe that the solutions to problems are simple.  That is far from the truth.

My 28 years of experience in higher education has given me a unique understanding of the root causes of its challenges and the way to empower leaders to solve them.  I spent most of 2019 thinking about how I could serve as a senior adviser to general counsel, governing boards, and key administrators in higher education.  And I looked closely at areas where it was apparent that the needs of leaders in higher education were not being met.  I looked for an institution that is nimble, smart, collaborative, responsive, truly committed to both efficiency and effectiveness, and devoid of the arrogance and lack of civility that you see too often in the legal profession.  Pat, Nicole, and I met to discuss our shared goals and things moved quickly from there.

At ElevateNext, I will utilize the personal leadership skills that I have learned from my parents and siblings, the problem solving skills that I learned as a partner at some of the nation’s best law firms, and the deep understanding of the legal and litigation challenges facing higher education and other clients to help clients. How will we at Elevate help our clients?:  by helping them identify and manage risks, resolving legal problems before they get out of control and damage hard earned reputations, reducing costs and eliminating wasteful practices, and developing and implementing our strategies for managing repetitive claims.

What Nicole Auerbach and Pat Lamb Say About Philip

It’s hard to describe Phil Harris with so little space. The adjectives that we tossed about were: accomplished, skilled, tenacious, commanding—all terms that describe the great litigator we first met many years ago.  But then we agreed on the best descriptor — “wise.” Phil’s time as General Counsel of Northwestern University, after his many years in large law firms, has given him the added perspective that people develop when their primary role is counselor, advisor and strategist. He is all that and more. We are thrilled to have him as part of this team and we know our customers will thoroughly appreciate his wisdom and perspective as well.

What makes me tick:

  • Listening to leaders and when necessary getting into the trenches to understand a client’s challenges and problems and find creative solutions to them.
  • Working with people who are smart, work hard, and diverse.
  • Developing a collegial bond with clients and fellow workers.
  • Understanding that no one is perfect and that we all make mistakes, but that the best of us learn from our mistakes and don’t repeat them.
  • Hearing a client say “you have been incredibly helpful and, by the way, you are a bargain.”

Affiliations/Awards

  • Fellow, Aspen Institute Henry Crown Fellowship Program on Leadership
  • Fellow, Leadership Greater Chicago
  • Trustee of Northwestern University, Board Vice Chair and Member of Executive Committee (1990-2015)
  • Member, The Commercial Club of Chicago
  • Member, The American Law Institute

Articles Written

  • “Determining Choice of Law in Toxic Tort Litigation,” For the Defense (Defense Research Institute, April 2014)
  • “Early Case Evaluation in Managing Litigation”; Chapter 16—Product Liability Litigation: Current Law, Strategies and Best Practices (Practicing Law Institute, 2009)
  • “Confronting Race,” Chicago Lawyer (Law Bulletin Publishing Company, July 2007)
 

And There’s More…

Affiliations/Awards

  • Fellow, Aspen Institute Henry Crown Fellowship Program on Leadership
  • Fellow, Leadership Greater Chicago
  • Trustee of Northwestern University, Board Vice Chair and Member of Executive Committee (1990-2015)
  • Member, The Commercial Club of Chicago
  • Member, The American Law Institute

Articles Written

  • “Determining Choice of Law in Toxic Tort Litigation,” For the Defense (Defense Research Institute, April 2014)
  • “Early Case Evaluation in Managing Litigation”; Chapter 16—Product Liability Litigation: Current Law, Strategies and Best Practices (Practicing Law Institute, 2009)
  • “Confronting Race,” Chicago Lawyer (Law Bulletin Publishing Company, July 2007)