On any given day in the life of Lesley Rosenthal, general counsel at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, she might be immersed in performance contracts with Yo-Yo Ma, hammering out negotiations with one of 13 unions, or preparing clauses in a lease with the property's owner, the City of New York.
She could also be writing cease-and-desist letters to local businesses trying to cash in on the Lincoln Center brand, dealing with a liability lawsuit brought by a pet owner whose dog took a dip in the fountain, or assessing whether Henry Moore's "Reclining Figure" sculpture was returned to its proper spot and submerged at the precise depth in the water of the reflecting pond, as stipulated.
Since 2005, Rosenthal has overseen all legal issues for the renowned arts center's cultural and educational offerings and its entrepreneurial initiatives, as well as the $1.2 billion renovation of the 50-year-old Lincoln Center and its 16.3-acre property, which is home to 12 arts organizations in 26 venues and which attracts 5 million visitors a year – the largest arts organization in the world.
On Monday, at a luncheon sponsored by Miami Law's Career Development Office, Rosenthal spoke to a group of students about the path that led her to Lincoln Center. After her talk, she signed copies of her book, Good Counsel: Meeting the Legal Needs of Nonprofits, which its publicity materials describe as a "compact and personable overview" of the legal needs of the 1.8 million tax-exempt organizations in the United States "crafted by one of America's most astute nonprofit general counsels."
Rosenthal graduated from Harvard College and received her J.D. at Harvard Law School, credentials that gave her significant post-graduate opportunities. And yet she recalled needing patience and flexibility in mapping out her career goals.
"I always wanted to be a public-interest lawyer," she said, but that journey took some years and quite a bit of self-discovery. After law school, Rosenthal spent more than 13 years in a private practice law firm. There, she built an impressive Rolodex of clients, from real estate developers to major corporations to franchise organizations – hardly clients typical of a public-interest lawyer.
Early in her career in private practice, however, Rosenthal found time to represent pro-bono clients. They included children in the juvenile rights division of the Legal Aid Society and a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks, through the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Such experiences, she said, cemented her desire to continue advocacy on behalf of nonprofit clients.
It was Rosenthal's pro-bono work that eventually led to her first experience as a general counsel. Her client was her former college roommate, a dancer who had invited Rosenthal to attend a performance of a new dance troupe she had joined. As it turned out, the troupe needed legal assistance that it could not afford, so Rosenthal took on the job of general counsel, pro bono, for the dancers. "I learned all about finding disability coverage, clearing rights to the music they wanted to dance to, and helping them look at contracts," she recalled. "It was such a learning experience for me."
All the while, Rosenthal's law firm was supportive of her pro-bono efforts, even offering to assign her a partner to supervise her work. The diverse legal experiences she gained as general counsel for her former roommate's dance troupe proved beneficial for her next general counsel position, at an advocacy organization that promoted higher quality child care in the nation's work force.
"This was a larger, more sophisticated organization with a higher octane board of directors," she explained. "I had to step up my own game and learn a lot more about making presentations to the board, and making sure that I fully grasped all the legal issues."
By the time the position at Lincoln Center opened up in 2004, Rosenthal was well prepared for the role. "I could not only talk to them about all my private sector experience I had working with all these commercial interests, but also that I had been the general counsel to different nonprofit organizations," she said. The Lincoln Center officials, impressed with Rosenthal's diverse experience, offered her the position of general counsel – her "dream job."
Rosenthal encouraged the Miami Law students to take part in whatever legal opportunities come their way. "You find all these pearls in your background and you try to stitch it together to make a necklace," she explained. Each experience, she said, provides a little something to that end.
For Rosenthal, the stitching process had begun early in her career, taking on pro bono clients in her spare time. When the Lincoln Center job came along, after years of stitching and linking, Rosenthal's necklace was finally laced.