Robert Bienstock says that when he was 10 years old, he wanted to be a scientist when he grew up. Today he is mixing his love of science with a love of law as senior associate general counsel at Yale, and has been sharing his legal expertise with his counterparts at other institutions through the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA), which has awarded Bienstock its Distinguished Service Award.
Bienstock says he loved science because it seemed to him that “there was nothing more important than the discovery of the truth.” Though he majored in physics in college and graduated with the highest honors, his career journey led him to higher-education law instead. Bienstock became an expert on many aspects of the law including private business use, a very technical part of tax law, and research and technology law, which is the focus of his practice today.
“One of the things I love about the work I’m currently doing,” says Bienstock, “is that as I’m sweating over contract clauses, what I’m really doing is facilitating the work of Yale scientists — making sure that they have the resources they need and as much flexibility as possible to feel empowered to discover new things. In the process, I often get to meet them, because I need to understand their science in order to do my law. I have Yale scientists explaining quantum mechanics and supercooled metals and genetically altered viruses to me. Pretty great for someone who has had a lifelong love of science.”
Bienstock received the NACUA’s Distinguished Service Award on June 19 during its 53rd annual conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The award recognizes Bienstock’s “outstanding and exemplary” service to the association, which he joined 25 years ago early in his career. NACUA’s members are higher-education institutions served by 4,000 primary and additional attorney representatives whose professional practice it strengthens and supports through education, training, workshops, and other resources.
Bienstock has served on NACUA’s Board of Directors (2003 –2006) and volunteered on over 10 committees. He has also presented on higher-education topics nationally and internationally, which includes serving over 30 times as a speaker, moderator, and discussion group leader at NACUA educational programs, as well as at programs for other institutions such as the University of the West Indies, the Connecticut Embryonic Stem Cell Oversight Committee, and the White House Conference on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He authored the Guide to Conducting a Hearing in a Higher Education Setting along with numerous papers for university lawyers and administrators; founded the listserv for research law; and worked to develop research and technology law as a practice area within NACUA.
Colleagues at NACUA cite Bienstock as a “go-to” expert on the increasingly complex issues of research, technology transfer and taxation. They also describe him as a “calm and compassionate guide to many colleagues who know far less, patiently and ably answering basic and difficult questions about intricacies of the law.”
“What I enjoy about making presentations for NACUA is the challenge of communicating real content to people in a 30-minute or 1-hour period of time. I want my audience to have a good time, but I also want to explain an issue so simply and succinctly that what they didn’t understand before, they do now. I did a presentation on private business use entitled, ‘10 Tricks of the Trade and 10 Things to Watch Out For’. That was a lot of fun — to take lawyers and higher-ed administrators who thought they knew the subject and get them to think about it in ways they had not thought of it before.”
Bienstock has spent his entire career in higher education law, first at the University of New Mexico’s (UNM) Institute for Public Law, then at its University Counsel Office, and, since 2006, at Yale’s Office of General Counsel. He received his J.D. from the University of California Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, and his B.S. with highest honors in physics from the State University New York at Stony Brook.
“Robert has been one of NACUA’s most passionate advocates and one of its most acclaimed speakers,” says Yale’s Vice-President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson. “He has contributed in a great many ways not only to NACUA, but also to the law of higher education and to the national community of university lawyers. This award is a wonderful accolade and it is well deserved.”
Bienstock still uses NACUA as a resource in much the same way he did when he first became a member. He frequently attends workshops, reads articles and listens to webinars. “There’s no question that I’ve gotten back more from NACUA than I’ve given,” he says. “The lawyers from higher education are some of the smartest, most decent, most thoughtful human beings I’ve ever met. When I go to conferences and talk about the problems I’m struggling with, and hear about how they’ve dealt with similar issues, I get so much out of it.
“I also enjoy helping my NACUA colleagues,” Bienstock adds. “People call and say, ‘Hey Robert, I’ve got a difficult situation; do you mind talking to me?’ I love doing that. I also find out what’s going on at other universities. I hope I help them. At the same time, I expand my horizons by getting to hear how different issues arise at different sorts of universities. That’s incredibly gratifying.”