Monthly Feature: Get to Know... Monica Barrett

November 29, 2018

By: Monica C. Barrett

Monica Barrett came of age in a tumultuous time. Following the great societal changes of the Sixties, traditional gender roles were being questioned and women were entering the workforce in greater numbers, embarking upon careers outside of the traditional pink collar professions. While a world of choices was opening up for intelligent, high achieving young women, there was also a clear push toward investment banking or the law. Always one to choose her own, rather than the conventional path, Monica, who had studied philosophy at Wellesley, initially resisted that directive, opting instead to spend some time traveling around the country, learning more about not only herself, but how she could have a positive impact on the future of others. 

Her time of self-reflection was well spent. Today, Monica, who joined Bond as a member in 2016, provides legal advice and counsel to colleges and universities in all aspects of higher education law, including student affairs, governance issues, athletics, and academic affairs, as she has done throughout her practice of the law. During her career, Monica has served as in-house counsel for institutions of higher education including Rutgers University, the State University of New York, Cornell University and Barnard College.

Prior to joining Bond in 2016, Monica served as Interim Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Rutgers and supervised a staff of 18 lawyers. Her responsibilities were commensurate with the demands of a large university with approximately 65,000 students and 20,000 employees and encompassed the full range of legal and compliance issues facing a state-wide research university with major professional schools and 29 labor unions. 

Raised in Syracuse, Monica was encouraged by her parents to choose a “Catholic college or a women’s college.” Wellesley both challenged her intellect and her notions about what she wanted to do with her life. Initially a math major, Monica’s transformation started almost immediately when she took “Intro to Moral Philosophy,” simply “because it met one of the requirements and fit into my schedule. It was taught by a fantastic professor who with that one class made me question the pursuit of a major in math. By the time I was a sophomore, I was immersed in humanities. Philosophers write about many different perspectives and this helped to train me to look at very different sides of the issue and be ready to talk about them. I developed my communication and conversational skills to the point where I came to realize that I could succeed as a lawyer.”

Another transformative experience Monica recalls from her Wellesley days occurred in a class with a professor who had recently taught as a visiting professor at Dartmouth. “The professor gave an opening presentation about the novel we were assigned and then asked the class of ten women for our thoughts. When none of us offered an opinion, she said, “I know that every one of you has read the book. At Dartmouth, every man in the class had something to say and half of them probably didn’t read the book.”

After earning her J.D. from the University of Michigan, Monica first clerked for an appellate division judge and then entered private practice in New Jersey. Looking for something more suited to her ambitions, Monica saw an ad for an in-house attorney at Cornell University. At that time, in-house positions at colleges and universities were a rarity, and Monica saw an opportunity. Just two years out of law school, Monica landed the position, serving first as Assistant and then as Associate University Counsel for four years before leaving for family reasons for a similar position at Barnard College. 

“Although Barnard was a wonderful place to work, I missed the variety of legal work that I had at a large research university like Cornell. In order to improve my chances of getting a job at a larger university in the New York City area, friends who were graduate students, and not lawyers, encouraged me to pick an emerging area of the law and focus on academic writing, which I did, later making a presentation on sexual harassment at the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA). Back in 1996, same-sex sexual harassment was not recognized as actionable—the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet issued its landmark decision in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services—and the first Supreme Court case that held that sexual harassment was a form of sex discrimination, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, was just 10 years old. I wanted to differentiate myself with this emerging issue. Rutgers recognized the growing need for legal counsel in this area and my presentation was a key factor in their decision to hire me—conveniently, the General Counsel was in the audience. I learned that to the extent that you can get yourself out there, if you can become an expert in a particular area of the law—such as I did at the time with sexual harassment, clients and colleagues will tap you as the expert and it will help you in your career. Getting into higher education law at its infancy, and in that particular area of the law, has been great for me.” 

Ultimately Monica enjoyed a long tenure at Rutgers University with a continued focus on sexual harassment matters. She was also involved with a wide variety of legal issues relating to faculty and staff, athletics, student affairs, campus safety, cybersecurity, and collective bargaining relationships. Monica was the principal counsel during the Title IX Athletics Gender Equity Compliance Review by the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights and oversaw dozens of internal investigations involving employment equity, workplace violence and sexual assault. Also, for the last three years of her time at Rutgers, Monica worked on the legal issues related to Rutgers’ merger with the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. 

After 19 years at Rutgers, Monica was looking for a fresh challenge. Shelley Sanders Kehl, co-chair of the higher education practice at Bond, saw an opportunity for the firm, and for Monica. “Monica is a natural with clients, with colleagues and even with adversaries. She is effective while being fun to work with. Though she takes her clients issues very seriously, her ability to see the big picture allows her to resolve even what appear to be intractable problems.”

When asked to name some of the biggest issues facing universities right now, Monica points to diversity among the faculty. “A lot of institutions are trying to figure out the legal way to encourage more diversity in hiring so that diversity among the faculty more closely matches diversity of student population. 

“We are also tackling issues of free speech and academic freedom in both public and private universities when controversial speakers are invited to campus or controversial statements are made on social media and widely disseminated. Sexual harassment and assault continue to remain significant issues on college and university campuses, and keeping up with new federal and state laws addressing these issues is a constant challenge.” 

The transition from Rutgers to Bond has proven to be a winner for Monica. “What I really enjoy about being at the firm is the opportunity to work with different clients, not only colleges and universities but also private and public secondary schools and campuses that differ from Rutgers, as well as the outstanding attorneys I work with here at Bond.” 

Her commitment to diversity remains strong. Monica serves on Bond’s Diversity Committee and has been actively involved in NACUA through service on committees and presentations on cyber-bullying, sexual harassment, psychiatric disabilities and the ADA, and faculty and staff discipline. She served on the NACUA Board of Directors from 2012 through 2015.

Monica lives in Brooklyn with her wife, Alexis Frazier, who is on the faculty of CUNY LaGuardia Community College. They have two adult sons.