Monthly Feature: Get to Know... Jane M. Sovern
January 1, 2022
By: Jane M. Sovern
Jane Sovern found her life’s path by helping guide others toward theirs.
After she graduated from Brown University with a bachelor’s degree in classics and history, she wanted to continue her studies – maybe pursue a doctorate. Instead, she found herself back on a college campus in a different role, as assistant director of career services at Bates College in Maine.
“I was helping students with their careers and obviously doing some thinking myself,” she says.
That thinking led her to Columbia Law School in New York City, where her education continued inside and outside the classroom.
“It was great to be in New York City, but it was not the most peaceful time,” she recalls. The AIDS crisis was at its height, and there was no shortage of political unrest. For example, students were protesting apartheid rule in South Africa. As a law student, she interned first with a legal services office in Brooklyn that assisted clients dealing with evictions, and the following summer with a human rights organization combating abuses in South Africa.
“A lot of folks who protested apartheid were getting swept up and arrested by the South African government and then tortured in custody,” she says. “Law students helped by taking affidavits to document what was going on.”
After law school, she accepted a job with a large law firm and then a smaller one where she got more hands-on experience on cases.
But soon she was ready for a change.
“I wanted to move somewhere that had a mission that I could be passionate about,” she says.
She accepted a position in the general counsel’s office at City University of New York (CUNY). She figured she’d stay five years, tops, but life at the nation’s largest public urban university “just kept getting more interesting,” Jane says.
Comprised of 25 campuses serving more than a quarter-million students, CUNY’s mission is not only to educate, but elevate the disadvantaged citizens of New York City.
She admits she was more than a little baffled by CUNY when she first arrived in 1991.
“Why are they doing things that aren’t college-like, things like workforce development and social services?” she remembers wondering. “It takes a long time to learn about a place that big.”
Before she knew it, she had been with CUNY 27 years, having served as assistant general counsel, deputy general counsel and interim general counsel. She worked on the full range of legal issues that confront a multi-campus public university. In one of her first assignments, she worked with the Attorney General’s office to defend a lawsuit filed by students who ran for student government and lost.
“They thought it wasn’t fair and sued,” Jane says with a smile. “I was flabbergasted. Welcome to New York. Welcome to CUNY. Welcome to this wacky world.”
The no-two-days-alike quality of higher education never lost its appeal for Jane, who after more than a quarter-century in-house at CUNY, most of it in leadership roles, joined Bond’s higher education practice in New York City in 2020. (She moved to the Westchester office when it opened in October 2021.)
“It was a terrific opportunity,” she says. “Bond is known for its higher education practice. And it meant I’d be working with a lot of different clients instead of in-house with just one. It was very exciting.”
Also exciting? Starting a new job just as COVID-19 enveloped the city, nation and globe.
Like most attorneys at Bond, Jane threw herself into learning and advising clients about how to navigate life in lockdown.
“Gail Norris (in Bond’s Rochester office) started around the same time, and I remember her saying, ‘I don’t think I have ever had to learn so much in such a short time,’ and I completely agree. I felt really grateful to use the in-house experience I had to help advise folks at different institutions and help them keep their bearings.”
Maurice Edelson, general counsel at The Juilliard School, describes Jane as “the most professional, responsive, thoughtful and truly helpful outside counsel one could want.”
“Jane has both broad expertise and experience to draw on and adds to that excellent common sense and balanced judgment,” he says. “Her ability to write, and to help one craft messages or communications that are just right for the situation, is a major added plus.”
Patti Lukas, vice president at Fountain House, a national mental health nonprofit organization, calls Jane a “a wonderful, calming voice in the middle of chaotic situations.”
“In the 10 months I’ve had the privilege of working with her, I’ve presented her with a wide array of legal issues that she has assessed and advised me on that have transformed my organization’s operations.”
When she’s not working, Jane enjoys giving back to her community, by serving on several boards, and to her profession, by mentoring younger colleagues.
“I appreciate the opportunity to pay it forward,” she says.
One beneficiary of Jane’s guidance was Kristen Bowes, who worked as an associate general counsel at CUNY during Jane’s tenure and now serves as general counsel at Mercy College, a Bond client.
“She always displayed such poise under pressure and had tremendous knowledge in the field,” Bowes says. “Yet she was always there to listen, and together we hashed out some tremendously complicated cases. … I am so grateful to have the opportunity to continue to work with Jane—an amazing lawyer and an even better human being.”