When veteran legal industry executive Tracee Whitley was an undergraduate at Harvard, she never imagined she’d eventually return decades later to become Harvard Law School’s new dean for administration. [See recent announcement of Whitley’s appointment.]

Since graduating from Harvard College, Whitley has earned a Master’s degree in government, a J.D. at Northeastern University, and an MBA at Boston University; practiced law at three firms; and, more recently, garnered nearly a decade of experience serving as chief operating officer for two global law firms, Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP and Bingham McCutchen LLP. The opportunity to return to Harvard and use those experiences “to support the teaching, research and service that makes HLS the unparalleled leader in legal education,” she says, was too good to turn down.

The former co-captain and goalkeeper for the Harvard women’s soccer team, Whitley credits former teachers, coaches, and bosses with helping inspire many of her personal and professional accomplishments over the years, and she sees supporting people — faculty, students and staff — as her primary goal at Harvard Law. As dean for administration, she will oversee the School’s administrative functions, including facilities, faculty support services, finance, human resources, information technology, and other business operations. Harvard Law Today recently spoke to Whitley via Zoom about her background and how she hopes to approach the new role.

Harvard Law Today: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Tracee Whitley: I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was fortunate to attend a great, small Episcopalian school from kindergarten all the way through high school. I actually graduated with only about 20 people, but we had terrific academic and athletic programs. Athletics were my primary extracurricular focus when I was young and I was definitely an early beneficiary of Title IX that paved the way for more opportunities for girls in athletics. I was fortunate that one of my teachers in junior high and in high school was a Harvard College grad who encouraged me to apply to Harvard, which otherwise I probably never would have done.

I had soccer scholarships to three other schools, including UNC, which at the time had the number one team. And I turned them down to come to Harvard, because when I came to visit, I really fell in love with the campus and I liked the students I met. I also liked Harvard’s women’s soccer coach, Bob Scalise, who went on to become the University Director of Athletics. I just felt at home at Harvard and it seemed like the right place for me. I wanted to play Division 1 soccer, and Harvard’s team in 1984 was excellent, in the top 20. But I also wanted the benefit of a Harvard education. So, both of those factors really influenced my transition to Cambridge in 1984.

HLT: You went to Harvard and Radcliffe. What was it like to be an undergraduate at that time?

Whitley: That was during the time when Radcliffe was in the process of merging with Harvard, so both the Radcliffe and the Harvard presidents signed my diploma. I was in Wigglesworth for my freshman year, so right there in the Yard, on bustling Mass Ave., and then at Kirkland House — my top choice because it was just across the river from the athletics facilities. And I just found Cambridge, while certainly very cold, weather-wise, fun and interesting. I immediately got integrated into the Harvard soccer community, because that was a fall sport. The deans and the undergraduate leadership treated us with a lot of respect, and basically said, ‘We’re thrilled you’re here. Have a great collegiate experience. Explore the variety of opportunities you have here. Try different kinds of classes; try different kinds of extracurricular activities. Meet your fellow classmates. We have an amazingly rich array of people from all over the country and the world.’ And I did as much of that as I could and had a tremendous experience.

HLT: How was playing soccer for Harvard?

Whitley: It was great. My freshman year was our best year in terms of our final ranking. We actually went to the NCAA Tournament and got into the second round there. I think we ended up finishing around 12th in the tournament. We had a tough loss to UMass. The only thing that got away from me was that we never won the Ivy League championship while I was at Harvard, which was heartbreaking. But we had really strong seasons, and I had a great experience and played at that Division 1 level that I wanted to play. I did have some injuries — unfortunately, goalkeeper life is tough on the body — but they were worth it.

HLT: You concentrated in modern European history. How did you get interested in that, and what did you learn that is still applicable today?

Whitley: I had a terrific teacher in high school who taught both German and modern European history. She was just fascinating, and brought that history to life. So, it was an influential high school teacher who got me really quite interested in that field. Studying history also taught me critical thinking skills, and our professors and tutors taught us the importance of the quality and depth of our research and writing work. Ultimately, that prepared me well to go into law, where the quality of your research and especially your writing product is extremely important.

HLT: You worked at the Harvard Divinity School early in your career. What drew you there?

Whitley: I knew I wanted to go to law school, but I didn’t want to go right after college. So, after graduation, I found a great job first at the FAS Physical Resources and Capital Projects Management Office and later at Harvard Divinity School in the Master’s degree admissions office. I loved the people in the office and admissions seemed like an interesting area. I stayed there nearly five years and got my Master’s in government through the Extension School while I was there and before going on to Northeastern for law school.

HLT: What interested you about the law?

Whitley: By junior high, I was very interested in politics, in civil rights issues, and in our overall system of government. So, law held quite an attraction as a potential profession and career area for me. Interestingly, though, when people had asked me in elementary school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them I wanted to be a writer. What I quickly learned as a lawyer is that writing is a central component to your work. So, there’s this thread of writing and a thread of the law in all of my academic interests and pursuits, from an early age.

HLT: After practicing law for several years, you ultimately became a chief operating officer for two firms. Can you tell me what interested you in helping run a large organization?

Whitley: I had thought about doing a JD MBA when I went to Northeastern, but decided that I didn’t want to spend the fourth year in grad school at that time, which is what it would have required. So, I had an interest in business going into law. After I graduated, I practiced at a few firms in Boston, where I got to explore corporate, litigation, employment, ERISA, as well as trust and estate planning work. My third firm was Bingham McCutchen, where I was very active as a senior associate on the associates committee, helping create a transactional pro bono program to support 501(c)(3) non-profit startups and helping with recruiting and other initiatives.

Then I got a call one day from the head of HR, basically saying that my name had come up for a new administrative role working with the chairman, and asking if I would interested. I thought, well, you know, working with the chairman of any organization can’t be a bad thing and I may as well have a chat with them about this. I also really admired and respected the chairman of Bingham, Jay Zimmerman [‘80], and ended up working with him for 10 years, initially in a chief of staff type of role. Ultimately, I got some terrific, progressive management opportunities in marketing and operations.

I can just tell you that it was an exciting and interesting time to be a member of a large law firm’s professional staff and my career development opportunities at Bingham were outstanding. Ultimately, the COO was going to be retiring and the chairman told me I should think about that career track because he thought I had what it takes to do the COO job. I told him that, to be an effective executive leader and to ensure I had all the business management knowledge and skills I would need in such a role, I would need to get that MBA I’d thought about getting years before. I was very lucky that he and other firm leadership supported me in that endeavor, and I studied business administration at the Boston University Questrom School of Management in their executive program while I remained working full time for the firm.

Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to serve as the chief operating officer of two global law firms, first Bingham and later Norton Rose Fulbright US.

HLT: What made you interested in taking on this role at HLS?

Whitley: When a recruiter calls asking if you want to talk about a role helping the dean support the faculty and students of Harvard Law School, it is not hard to take that call. This role really feels like the culmination of a lot of my educational and professional experiences. On a personal level, I spent 10 years at Harvard — as an undergraduate, working at FAS, the Divinity School, and earning my Master’s — and I am really excited by the opportunity to return. More importantly, Harvard Law is at the forefront of legal education and scholarship, and I’m excited to use my experience in the law, in the global legal industry, and as a COO of two firms to help Dean Manning support the HLS’ teaching, research and service mission. I am also a big supporter of public interest law, so I have a great deal of admiration for the School’s legal clinics and student practice organizations, as well as HLS’ overall commitment to having students do pro bono work, which I greatly enjoyed doing when I was practicing law.

HLT: Do you have a management philosophy that you bring to the role?

Whitley: People are the most important thing about any organization and I absolutely believe that treating people well in all aspects of managing an organization is the hallmark of great leadership. How you do things matters — to people directly impacted and those who are witnesses to the situation, whatever it may be. There is no doubt in my mind that the faculty, students and staff are what makes Harvard Law School the unparalleled center of legal education and scholarship that it is. And, in all of my prior roles, I have always made a point of trying to get to know as many people as I can at all levels of those organizations.

So, I’m looking forward to learning all about HLS and to meeting and getting to know the wonderful people who make it the incredible institution that it is. That will, of course, be a bit more challenging to get underway in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic — I’ve never started a job remotely before — but I’ll do my best over Zoom and am looking forward, as we all are, to getting back on campus, where those interactions will come more frequently and naturally.