Monthly Feature: Get to Know... Joanna L. Silver

June 1, 2022

Raised by two teachers in New Windsor, New York, about 60 miles north of Manhattan, Joanna Silver suspected her life’s path would dovetail somehow with the field of education. 

After all, she knew firsthand the perks of plying your trade in a classroom: summers off, tenure, stability. She also was drawn to the notion of helping others. And yet, something else was persistently tugging her in a different direction.

“I knew somehow that the law was in the future for me,” Joanna says. “And when I got to college at SUNY Binghamton, there was an interdisciplinary major called Law and Society that combined studies in philosophy, political science, history and, of course, law.”

The puzzle pieces started coming together. Law school seemed the natural next step, and she decided to remain in the State University of New York (SUNY) system and enroll at University of Buffalo School of Law.

“The state tuition was a big draw, as opposed to going into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt,” she said. “I’m a big fan of the SUNY system.” 

After her first year in law school, the job placement office approached Joanna about a unique summer job opportunity at – wait for it – the SUNY Central Administration office in Albany. She aced the interview with the general counsel for all of SUNY, who became a treasured mentor.

It was during that summer in the state’s capital that Joanna first discovered there were lawyers who practiced exclusively on college campuses. 

“That was how I got introduced into higher education law,” she says. “I had a great summer and pretty much knew that was what I wanted to do.”

The next summer, she set her sights higher and reached out to the U.S. Department of Education. She wanted experience working on federal issues and secured an internship with the department’s general counsel’s office.

“I didn’t get paid. Of course, that made my parents very happy,” she joked. “I told them, ‘Look, this is experience you can’t put a price tag on. It’s worth everything.’”

And it was. 

During that summer in Washington, Joanna was able to witness the Supreme Court in session. The day she attended, the court handed down its historic Virginia Military Institute ruling that declared the military academy’s exclusion of female cadets unconstitutional. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the decision, and Joanna was there to hear RBG read it aloud into the record.

Listening from the gallery, she thought, “I am totally where I’m supposed to be.”

As her time in law school was coming to an end, Joanna realized there was no obvious or well-worn path to a job as college in-house counsel. That’s because the only institutions that had their own in-house counsel at the time were public, multicampus systems like SUNY and large private institutions, and these schools only hired counsel with years of experience. Still, Joanna wanted to work with colleges, where no day was like the last and she could always have 10 different issues on her desk.

“You felt you could always be learning something new,” she says.

She set out to find law firms that at least provided outside counsel to higher education clients. 

“It really was up to me to figure it out,” she says. “I did my own research and made my own contacts,” she says.

She found a firm in Brooklyn and wrote a letter to the partner in charge of that specific practice area.

“We hit it off, he offered me a job, I stayed 15 years,” she says.

“My parents were happy, because my work was quasi-related to theirs and I was able to pay for my own food,” she says. “The black sheep of the family made good.”

“I’ve worked with Joanna on Pratt’s immigration matters for close to 25 years,” says Amy Hecht, Director of Employment at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. “Her knowledge of immigration law and her ability to unravel and find solutions to complex immigration issues is equaled by the care, compassion and consideration she manifests in everything she does.”

When the partner who hired her eventually retired, Joanna was an island in the firm, the only one still practicing higher education law. She knew she was ready for a change. After Joanna joined another firm in New York City, an acquaintance she knew for more than 15 years through the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA), Shelley Kehl, announced that her firm had decided to join Bond, Schoeneck & King.

“She kind of planted a seed in my head,” Joanna says. “The next thing I knew, I was reaching out to Shelley to see if I, too, could join Bond, and a plan started to grow.”

Joanna joined Bond’s Higher Education and Immigration practices in 2015. She works in Bond’s Westchester office, which opened in White Plains in 2021. She and her husband, Kevin Organ, live nearby with their two children: Jacob, 13, and Taryn, 11.

“We’ve been lucky enough to work with Joanna as the college’s counsel for quite a few years now, relying on her extensive knowledge of the law, her spot-on advice and her professionalism,” says David Sprouls, President of the New York School of Interior Design. “It is clear she is passionate about what she does. And to top it off, she is a delightful person.”