At home in academia

Tom Galligan's career takes him from practice to Congress

As a kid, Tom Galligan Jr., thought he wanted to be a lawyer, a teacher or a writer when he grew up.  He didn't wind up following a single one of those dreams - he achieved all of them and more. Galligan was a practicing attorney, law professor and scholar before assuming his present role as a college president.

Tom Galligan Jr. ’81, testifies before Congress about the legal aspects of the Gulf oil spill. Photo by Jay Mallin.

"I've accomplished what I've accomplished because of the education that I was able to enjoy," Galligan says. "One of the great things I learned at Seattle U is what you want to do for a law student is teach him or her to teach themselves, because the law you learn today is going to change tomorrow."

He has also learned that the career path you start doesn't always lead to the same place. After law school graduation, Galligan '81, began working at Seattle's Lane Powell and had a promising career as a civil litigator. Today, the 55-year-old father of four grown children serves as president of Colby-Sawyer College, a small and distinguished liberal arts institution in New London, N.H., and is a national expert on maritime law called to testify before Congress on the legal aspects of the disastrous Gulf Oil spill.

It wasn't any kind of adversity or distress that changed Galligan's career trajectory. If anything, things were going too well when he was at Lane Powell. "I was doing great and enjoying myself and I realized if I ever wanted to try anything different that was the time," he says. "Because in a year or two I would be a partner in a great law firm (and the future would be settled)."

Galligan took a leave from Lane Powell to get an LL.M. from Columbia University, but instead of returning to Seattle after graduation, he accepted a job teaching law at Louisiana State University.

"As a civil litigator I was not in court that much," he says. "So I realized my performance need would be filled more in a classroom. I liked that because I'm sort of a ham. "

In Louisiana, Galligan developed an expertise in maritime law.  "My primary research and teaching love in law was torts," he explains. "In Louisiana, admiralty is a significant part of personal injury practice. So I would be giving speeches and I'd be asked, 'Is that the rule in admiralty?' And I couldn't answer."

So he approached his mentor at LSU, Frank Maraist, who taught admiralty. Maraist told him he should try teaching the admiralty course to see if he liked it. "I loved it. I absolutely loved it. So we split it and life was great. He had a casebook that he published and he asked me to join him in writing it."

As before, just when things seemed great, Galligan decided he'd better make a change before he got too comfortable. So after 12 years teaching and writing at LSU, Galligan took an appointment as dean of the University of Tennessee's College of Law - and again, found himself loving the new challenge, this time of academic administration along with teaching.

"After about seven years, my chancellor told me, 'You should think about being president of a college,'" Galligan recalls. He tucked the suggestion away and went on with his life. His son, Patrick, was a junior at Bates College in Maine and his daughter Sarah was in her first year at Dartmouth when Galligan  and his wife, Susan, visited.  "It was a beautiful fall weekend," he says. "My wife went to Mt. Holyoke, our honeymoon was in Nantucket. New England was always on our wishlist."

Tom and his wife, Susan, are at home in New England.

The couple returned to Tennessee and within two weeks, Galligan had an email from a search firm looking for Colby-Sawyer's new president.  "I  swore I was not going to get emotionally involved," he says of the nomination and interview process. "But by the end of the second day I was in love. What a wonderful challenge and opportunity."

Fortunately, the Colby-Sawyer trustees felt the same way about Galligan, and he was named president of the college in 2006. Under his leadership, Colby-Sawyer's enrollment has grown significantly, along with the size of the faculty and the number of majors and minors offered. And he teaches one undergraduate law class each year.  "I'm still adjusting to being responsible for 18- to 20-year-olds," Galligan says. "It's very different than being law school dean or faculty member."

Even as he adjusted to life as the president of a college in New England, Galligan's expertise in maritime law brought him to the attention of Congress after the BP oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Galligan was on the second day of a vacation in Florida when he got the request to testify before a House Committee. "My wife said, 'How many times in your life is this going to happen to you? You've got to go to Washington.'" So, with that blessing, he interrupted the family vacation to testify.

The Senate came calling next - just days before a more significant vacation to Italy. Galligan was able to squeeze his testimony in just two days before leaving for Europe.

" It was a terrible, terrible, tragic reason to have a once in a lifetime professional experience," Galligan says "I was really nervous about the whole thing... But at the hearings, the first witness was either a father or a mother or a widow of one of the people who was killed. ... To listen to them really helped center things and put it all in perspective."

Galligan told the Committee that the laws covering the disaster were "under compensatory, outdated and inconsistent."  Because the accident happened on a mobile drilling rig that was capping the well so that a permanent rig could be built, the survivors have no right to recover damages for loss of companionship. Had the accident occurred on the fixed platform that would be built next, state law would cover the workers and made their families eligible to recover non-pecuniary damages.

The House listened and soon passed a bill that would address the outdated and inconsistent laws Galligan testified about. The Senate has not yet acted on the legislation.

Regardless of whether Galligan's testimony triggers a significant change in maritime law, he's made an enormous impact on many of those practicing law today and in the future. Galligan, who along with his father, Thomas C. Galligan, established an endowment to enhance the quality of the Seattle University School of Law's educational program, looks back on his years in law school and realizes the value of the bonds between professors and students goes far beyond recommendations and networking.  

"Sometimes things you think and hope for yourself are more likely to happen if someone validates you." 

By Cheryl Reid-Simons