From his office on the 18th floor of Van Hise Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Tomas Stafford has a sprawling view of the campus and the surrounding area.
The view, varied and expansive, is a metaphor for the work he does in his role as general counsel for the UW System.
Stafford began working for UW’s legal office in 2000 and has led it since 2010. His office serves all of the two- and four-year UW campuses except for Milwaukee and Madison, which have their own legal staff, as well as the UW Extension.
“It’s a pretty broad range of issues that we cover,” he said, “from employment relations and real estate issues, to taxes and compliance.”
Every day is different. One day, Stafford might be advising UW System President Ray Cross on a legal concern and the next day he’s putting together a training session for managers about identifying violence in the workplace.
“One neat thing about this job is that we get out to the other campuses,” Stafford said. “We may meet with someone at UW-Whitewater, which isn’t that far away, or get in the car and drive several hours up to UW-Superior.”
Wisconsin Law Journal: Tell me about your role.
Tomas Stafford: The system is very large. We have a lot of students and employees, and there are a lot of issues we deal with. We also deal with a lot of things many businesses do: compliance issues, taxes, real estate, employee issues. It really runs the gamut.
WLJ: What do you consider your most important role as in-house counsel?
Stafford: Providing good legal advice as issues come up. I also work a great deal on making sure we are compliant on a whole host of issues. It’s a great job and what I do is very interesting and very diverse.
WLJ: What are you working on now?
Stafford: Compliance is a big issue right now. Over the past few decades, there are more federal rules and regulations that colleges need to follow, so I’m involved in making sure we are keeping up. The regulations range from those dealing with the IRS to civil rights to things like the Clery Act, which requires universities to disclose campus security regulations and crime statistics.
WLJ: How many people are in your legal department?
Stafford: There are six other attorneys besides myself, plus two support staff. All of our attorneys have different specialties, such as tax or real estate, but we all deal with employee issues.
WLJ: What do you look for in outside counsel?
Stafford: The state attorney general’s office will represent us and help defend us if needed, so we don’t use outside counsel much. In cases where it is very specialized or we’re being sued out of state, then we may look at it, but it’s pretty limited. The governor actually needs to approve it if we seek outside counsel.