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Care, compassion, community drive Northeastern’s vice president of legal affairs

11/03/15 - BOSTON, MA. - Lisa Sinclair poses for a portrait on Oct. 3, 2015. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The symmetry between Lisa Sinclair’s personal and professional life is impossible to miss, reflecting her deep commitment to care, compassion, and community.

At home she is the mother of a thriving graduate student and the proud “parent” of five rescue animals, including four cats and one dog.

At Northeastern she is the vice president of legal affairs and the deputy general counsel, a position that allows her to harness her expertise in higher education law to better the lives of students, faculty, and staff.

As she puts it, “I try to start each day thinking about what I can do in support or advancement of my family, my friends, my colleagues, and the university.”

‘A mission I believe in’

Sinclair arrived at Northeastern 17 years ago, joining the Office of the General Counsel as senior assistant university counsel in 1998. She was fresh off a stint as an attorney at Murphy, Hesse, Toomey, and Lehane, a multi-service law firm based in Massachusetts, and was looking forward to cutting her teeth as a lawyer in the nonprofit sector.

“The position had all the things that I enjoyed doing as a lawyer in private practice,” Sinclair recalls, “one that would allow me to use my legal and business skills to serve an excellent university with an educational mission I truly believe in.”

Today her responsibilities run the gamut, from writing amicus briefs for Supreme Court cases germane to Northeastern’s interests to ensuring that the university is in compliance with higher education laws.


I’m in the right place doing exactly what I am meant to be doing. I feel truly privileged to be a part of Northeastern.
— Lisa Sinclair

For her, Northeastern is like a big city: Both, she says, must contend with the same legal issues on a daily basis, including those involving healthcare, employment, and education.

“Northeastern is a very complex environment in which to work,” she explains, “as it continues to evolve and strive to meet the requirements of all the laws governing higher educaton.”

Military child

Sinclair’s ability to adapt to new surroundings in short order has served her well at Northeastern. It’s a skill she honed years ago.

As a kid, her family owned a home in Lexington, Massachusetts, the site of the start of the Revolutionary War. But her father was in the Air Force and she was a military child, growing up in Michigan, Mississippi, New York, and California.

“I liked moving around,” Sinclair recalls. “You learn how to make friends quickly and don’t take yourself too seriously.”

Now at Northeastern, she says, “I work in a highly collegial and collaborative environment, where success depends on being adaptable and flexible. All those skills I learned as a child have continued to benefit me today.”

And all her hard work has paid off in spades: In July, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly named her one of 2015’s top women of law. The honor attests to her legal accomplishments, Sinclair says, and “confirms that my work has made positive contributions to Northeastern and furthered its mission, benefitting the university and its community over the course of my career.”

Great expectations

In selecting Sinclair, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly considered her myriad contributions to the community beyond Northeastern. For one, she is a member of the National Council for Adoption’s board of directors, a group committed to the belief that every child deserves to thrive in a nurturing, permanent family.

Earlier this month, Sinclair and her daughter, Jessica Burke, S’13/MS’16, spoke at the organization’s 35th Anniversary Great Expectations Gala in Washington, D.C. Sinclair and her husband, Ed Burke, adopted Jessica from foster care in 2001, when she was 12 years old, and have been outspoken adoption advocates ever since.

In her gala speech, Burke explained how a child’s chances of lifelong success improve when he or she is adopted, using her accomplishments both in and out of the classroom over the past decade as a shining example.

Burke is currently working toward her master’s in counseling and applied educational psychology at Northeastern while serving as a clinical intern for the Italian Home for Children.

“Older children in foster care tend to be overlooked when parents are pursuing adoption,” Sinclair says, noting that she’s counseled friends and colleagues at Northeastern who have considered adopting an older child from foster care. “But my daughter underscores that there are many wonderful older children waiting for their permanent families.”

Art, animals, and organic gardening

When she’s not working at Northeastern or advocating on behalf of adoption, Sinclair can be found at her home in South Natick, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband and their five companion animals.

There’s the dog, a Goldendoodle named Gracie Belle. She’s almost 2 and weights some 50 pounds. And then there’s the quartet of cats, a domestic shorthair named Hope and three of the Siamese variety, Tiki, Theodore, and Simon. Tiki is the mother of Theodore and Simon, who were named after the Chipmunks.

“Tiki came to us as a pregnant rescue who temporarily was placed with us by an agency,” Sinclair explains. “But she was feral and we were worried the rescue agency would be unable to place her, so we kept her and her kittens too.”

Aside from her cats and dog, Sinclair enjoys cooking and organic gardening. “In the spring, I can’t wait to go out there and dig in the dirt,” she says. “You name it, I grow it.”

I try to start each day thinking about what I can do in support or advancement of my family, my friends, my colleagues, and the university.
— Lisa Sinclair

Imagine the space in her backyard, 128-square-feet and ever increasing in size: Here a patch of tomatoes, there a patch of cucumbers. Here a patch of squash, there a patch of Brussels sprouts.

“There is nothing better than grilled Brussels sprouts,” Sinclair says. “Even if you think you don’t like them, grill them and you’ll become a fan.”

Like cooking and gardening, art and travel have also played a big role in her life.

Sinclair makes mosaics, hanging them on the walls of her home and gifting them to her friends. If one of her friends breaks a plate or a piece of pottery, she’ll appropriate the shards into her artwork and then give the friend the finished piece. “Don’t throw broken ceramics or china out,” she tells them. “It can be repurposed for use in a bowl, a mirror, or flower pot.”

One of her favorite artists is Auguste Rodin, the 19th-century French sculptor. Another is Antoni Gaudi, the famous 20th-century Catalan architect. His seminal work is the Sagrada Família, the large yet unfinished Roman Catholic Church located in Barcelona, one of Sinclair’s go-to travel spots.

“My passion for travel is connected to my passion for art and architecture,” she says. “When the Sagrada Família is finished, I hope I can go back to see it.”

If things had turned out a little differently, Sinclair herself might have become a professional artist instead of an award-winning lawyer.

She initially planned to study art in college but her mother encouraged her to explore her academic options. She ended up loving the social sciences, earning her bachelor’s in sociology from Mount Holyoke College and then her juris doctor from Boston College Law School.

One day this summer, Sinclair was sifting through her old artwork with her mother, who passed away a few weeks later. Mother asked daughter if she felt badly that she had not focused her professional career on art and daughter said no.

“I’m in the right place doing exactly what I am meant to be doing,” Sinclair says. “I feel truly privileged to be a part of Northeastern, representing its interests on a daily basis. If I hadn’t followed this path, I wouldn’t be here now.”

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