Minneapolis Fed GC Niel Willardson ’87 Named First Fellow of Institute for Law and Economics
It wasn’t long after graduating from University of Minnesota Law School in 1987 that Niel Willardson ‘87 started giving back by teaching legal writing. That inclination and commitment to helping an important institution in his life has continued for 30 years, culminating in Minnesota Law recently naming him the first fellow of its Institute for Law and Economics.
Willardson, who is general counsel and senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, created the law school’s contract drafting course and has taught other classes such as financial regulation and the corporate counsel seminar. He brings his real-world experience from three decades at the Federal Reserve to the classroom and has been instrumental in building connections between students, faculty, and Fed leaders, says Claire Hill, professor and James L. Krusemark Chair in Law, and associate director of the Institute for Law and Economics.
“Niel is a treasure. Everyone who is part of our law school community should know how valuable Niel has been to us over the years,” Hill says. “Even though Niel is in a very senior position at the Minneapolis Fed, he approaches his relationship with the law school with enthusiasm for what we do. He is curious about what we think about and how our scholarship can help inform what he does day-to-day and how what he does day-to-day can inform our scholarship.”
Naming Willardson a fellow acknowledges his enduring ties to Minnesota Law and sets the stage to deepen the relationship he has with the school, students, faculty, the broader University community, and beyond. Minnesota Law and Willardson are exploring options for how it will work, Hill adds.
‘Room to Grow’For Willardson, becoming the Institute’s fellow is both an honor and an opportunity to continue his and Minnesota Law’s efforts to promote synergies between financial regulation, policy, and law. For example, his perspective on the inner workings of regulation and academics’ research-based ideas on improving such regulation could lead to more effective approaches, he says.
“We’ve gotten started with those efforts but there is more room to grow,” Willardson says. “There are great opportunities and connections we can build between law, policy, and practices. I’m involved in the day-to-day work of financial institution law and regulation. We like to hear from academic folks who are thinking deeply about law and policy that there may be better ways to solve for key problems and issues we have in financial regulation. That can have real value.”
Willardson already has brought real value to Minnesota Law, through sharing his expertise with students and mentoring them, his exemplary teaching, and opening Minneapolis Fed doors to his law school peers and the broader legal community. On top of teaching his own courses, Willardson recruited several other adjunct professors and was the inaugural recipient of Minnesota Law’s Stanley V. Kinyon Adjunct Teacher of the Year Award in 2010.
Brett McDonnell, Dorsey & Whitney Chair in Law and professor, appreciates the depth of knowledge that Willardson incorporates into every class he teaches, ranging from financial regulation and drafting contracts to business law and being a general counsel.
“He brings both expertise and approachability, and he’s very clear in talking through topics with students,” says McDonnell, co-director of the Institute for Law and Economics. “He’s always gotten rave reviews from students. Niel is a really great, nice guy, and he’s very easygoing and just a good person to talk with and deal with. He brings all of that to the classroom.”
Former student Christina Peters ’15 agrees. Her favorite course in law school was contract drafting, co-taught by Willardson. It greatly influenced her decision to pursue a career in transactional law. She regularly uses lessons she learned from Willardson, including creative thinking and approaches, as an associate attorney in tax, corporate, and bankruptcy law at Mathis, Marifian & Richter in Belleville, Illinois.
“He’s a great mentor, and if I have a question about a financial document I can call and ask him a question,” Peters says. “So many things Niel said during class stuck with me, including being the first to hold the pen when creating a document and that you only have so many hours of genius a day, so use them wisely.”
Peters enjoyed classes like Willardson’s that incorporated teachings from his work life, such as being proactive and preventing problems through well-written contracts instead of drawn out, reactive litigation. She plans to model her own instruction after Willardson when she starts teaching business law in the spring.
Another former student, Timothy Rank ’93, deputy criminal chief of the national security and cybercrime section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota, took legal writing from Willardson. They lost touch but reconnected when Rank visited the Federal Reserve for a meeting about financial crimes several years ago. That led to the pair holding a conference at the Minneapolis Fed on bank fraud and other financial crimes for commercial bank employees who monitor suspicious activity.
Willardson also invites Rank to guest lecture about ethics to his Minnesota Law classes. Rank is always impressed by Willardson’s ability to foster dialogue with students—something he knows is difficult as an adjunct law professor himself. “Niel is a person of integrity and he’s thoughtful about ethics. These things are hugely important, and I’m not sure that they are necessarily stressed in law school for people who are going out into the business world,” Rank says.
“Niel brings a real-world, living, and breathing culture of integrity to the law school, and he challenges students to think about how they will operate when they go out into the world of business or legal practice.”
Building ties between Minnesota Law and the business world isn’t something Willardson does just in the United States. With Hill, he has helped hone relationships with legal scholars in Ireland at University College Dublin to explore international business and financial regulation. This effort includes hosting assistant professor Joe McGrath at the Minneapolis Fed and in his Minnesota Law classes, as well as participating in the conference, Regulating Bank Culture, in Dublin early in 2020.
Willardson will be an outstanding fellow, McGrath says, because he excels at cultivating students’ critical and analytical skills, encourages them to question the world around them, and conveys his expertise in complex financial regulatory systems in clear and accessible ways. “He encourages students to reflect on the importance of regulatory architectures for the economy and society, encouraging students to be critically aware citizens,” McGrath says.
“Niel has a remarkable flair for bridging the gap between academic legal studies and legal practice,” he adds. “He is generous in sharing his time and expertise, bringing together academics, policy makers, and practitioners in settings and fora that facilitate the exchange of ideas, encouraging collaboration which can foster innovation in policy formulations.”
Fostering innovation and further opening the doors of collaboration between practitioners, academics, and policy makers is what Hill and other law school leaders envision for Willardson’s new role. Whether it’s delving into improving financial regulation or responding to incentives that might adversely affect risk-taking, there will be ample opportunities for exploring and forging deeper connections between Minnesota Law and a veteran central bank general counsel.
—By Suzy Frisch, a Twin Cities-based freelance writer