As lawyers, we are no strangers to the world of higher education. Each of us admitted to the practice of law has at least conquered a bachelor’s degree and a juris doctor degree, if not additional advanced degrees. Even with the majority of our 20s spent on campus, I doubt many of us are familiar with the actual work of those who run our Universities.
That’s why I recently sat down with Holland & Hart partner and 10-year veteran of the University of Colorado Board of Regents, Michael Carrigan, to learn about his unique career—which has blended public service with the practice of law—and to gather his advice for others forging a similar path.
Michael Carrigan is a legal legacy in Colorado. The son of the Honorable James “Jim” Carrigan, the late Colorado Supreme Court Justice (1976–79) and U.S. District Court Judge (1979–95), the younger Carrigan followed his father and several siblings into the family tradition of becoming an attorney. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and University of Colorado School of Law. Carrigan began his legal career as a federal judicial clerk in the District of Wyoming. Later, Carrigan was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Denver under Bill Ritter’s administration. After leaving the Denver District Attorney’s office, Carrigan briefly went to work at a small litigation firm, where he worked on both criminal and civil litigation matters.
About two years later, Carrigan and his wife decided to take a professional hiatus and move to Bolivia to volunteer with three Catholic nuns in Latin America’s poorest country. Carrigan raves about the value of his experience in Bolivia and tells how grateful he is for a life in the United States following that drastic lifestyle comparison. Carrigan’s year in Bolivia broadened his appreciation for cultural diversity and the need for service. He even learned to speak Spanish pretty well. After his return to Denver, Holland & Hart recruited Carrigan for its insurance coverage practice group, where he remains a partner today.
“For those wanting to add a public service aspect to their law practice,” Carrigan says “it is vital to find a firm that is dedicated to public service. When I approached H&H’s Chair, Anne Castle, about running for the Board of Regents, she was very supportive.” Carrigan first ran for the Board of Regents in 2004, and following a tough primary, was elected by a district that is geographically coextensive with Colorado’s First U.S. Congressional District currently represented in Washington by Rep. Diana DeGette (D). He was reelected by a large margin to a second term in 2010.
The nine-member Board of Regents governs the University System of Colorado’s four campuses—Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, and the Anschutz Medical Campus. Two members of the Board represent the state at-large, while the other seven serve a smaller, geographic constituency. The Board oversees Colorado’s $3.4 billion public university system by setting tuition rates, approving budgets, promoting diversity among students and faculty, and setting financial aid policies.
Carrigan’s service on the Board of Regents reflects his skill as a consensus builder. The Democrat was twice-elected Chair by the majority Republican Board. Carrigan is most proud of reaching across the aisle to serve Colorado’s public university students, faculty and staff.
“Good policy, rather than good politics builds consensus,” he reminds us.
Carrigan is also proud of the Board of Regent’s work during his term of service, including setting aside a significant portion of the budget for financial aid, guaranteeing transfer admission from Colorado community colleges when the students earn at least thirty credit hours with a GPA of 2.7 or greater. He also sought to increase student diversity, particularly on the Boulder campus, which has experienced slow but steady success.
“There are so many ways that lawyers can serve the public,” notes Carrigan, who also serves on Denver’s Crime Prevention and Control Commission, where he is the current co-chair.
In addition to serving as Regent and Chair of the Mayor’s Commission, Carrigan has served on the Boards of Mile High Red Cross, LARASA, and Easter Seals Colorado.
One fact may come as a surprise to those seeking a position on a public service or a nonprofit board: there is usually no pay. Carrigan estimates that he devotes about 30 to 40 hours per month to his role on the Board of Regents, without any financial compensation. However, to Carrigan, the value of the experience he has received is priceless. He encourages other members of the DBA to devote time to a cause of their own interest. “Many nonprofit boards would love to have a lawyer as a member,” says Carrigan. “Most nonprofits run into legal questions, large and small, and it helps to have an attorney answer the easy questions or point out when the organization needs to get formal legal advice,” says Carrigan.
However, he also cautions lawyers that “when serving on nonprofit boards, attorneys need to be careful to avoid creating an attorney–client relationship when giving common sense input as a board member.” He continues: “When giving your thoughts, you should remind your fellow board members that you’re not the organization’s lawyer.” That’s great advice from a veteran of several boards. And as for getting started, he suggests identifying charitable entities that appeal to you and simply reaching out to them to ask how you can get involved.
Carrigan’s own devotion to public service continues as he has announced his run for Denver District Attorney in 2016 as candidate for the decisive Democratic primary in June 2016. Carrigan will face State Rep. Beth McCann (D-Denver) in a Democratic primary election on June 28, 2016.