Classroom to the Courtroom: Dynamic Legal Careers for the Former Educator
By Ms. JD Editor • November 12, 2021•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence, Careers, Other Career Issues
You taught in K-12 schools and now may want to “use” your education experience in law. If so, this blog post is for you. By way of background, I went to law school knowing that I wanted to somehow remain connected to the education world. I was an elementary school teacher in local public charter schools for three years immediately prior to law school. But my law school at that time had no professors with this experience and I was the only one of my peers who wanted to go into this area of practice. The career counselors at my law school were not familiar with this niche practice and instead focused on ensuring that graduates consider big or mid-sized Philadelphia firms after graduation or land a spot at the District Attorney or City Solicitor’s office. While great options for students interested in those opportunities, they just weren’t for me. One professor told me that I shouldn’t go into litigation because in his experience he didn’t enjoy being beholden to a calendar - but this advice ran contrary to my personal career goals. I am certain that things have changed at my law school since then but I was turned away from practicing education law because I had no guidance.
While I took a roundabout path, the journey led me to my current career with 60% of my practice in education and school law. I also work on employment defense, guardianships, and civil litigation. It took me about five years to end up working primarily in the education space. Although it took me this long, I am grateful for my previous experiences clerking for a family law judge, practicing employment and labor law for both private and public entities, dabbling in environmental litigation, and for two years I worked on Section 1983 litigation defending medical providers in state prisons, personal injury defense representing colleges and universities, and general commercial litigation at both a large and mid-sized New Jersey law firms.
Now, I work at a New Jersey law firm that represents about 80 of the 600 school districts throughout the state. My firm has about 50 attorneys, many who practice law representing cities, towns, and municipalities regarding real estate, land use planning, and litigation so it complements the firm’s practice group that represents school districts and smaller colleges and universities. I will next discuss the variety of practice settings, organizations, firms, classes you should take in law school, and resources for the educator turned lawyer.
1. Mix of Litigation, Advocacy, Transactional and Direct Representation
Education law involves a diverse range of issues and areas of practice, including but not limited to employment law, contract law, immigration, labor law, special education, privacy, and intellectual property. The general overview of public education law, however, is the mandate that every child be given the opportunity for a free, public, and appropriate education.
Each state has its own education laws and as a result, laws regarding the management of schools, teachers, tenure, and funding for public schools vary among different states. It is a mix of Federal, State, and local administrative laws. Regardless of whether you represent parents, the students, or the schools, you will be involved in litigation.
Attorneys who represent school districts, independent schools, or institutions of higher education will always deal with issues of school governance. You will be the direct contact of superintendents, principals, human resources, and the school business administrators. In this context, lawyers will provide advice and guidance on issues such as employment, finance, immigration, student residency, liability, teacher and student discipline, and records. In the employment & labor arena, attorneys may need to draft or interpret collective bargaining agreements, resolutions, handle discrimination claims, represent the institution in tenure/discipline cases, or negotiate settlement agreements.
2. Different Practice Settings
There are a variety of practice settings that a lawyer with an education background can get involved in. While you do not necessarily need teaching experience, it certainly helps and can give you a sense of the big picture in every case or issue.
- Represent School Districts and/or Colleges and Universities
Private firms involved in education law range from small firms with a handful of attorneys to larger firms with an education law practice group. The larger firms usually represent K-12 school districts, independent schools, and colleges and universities. Lawyers that practice education law can work in a variety of settings. For example, like myself, you can work as general counsel or special education counsel only for local school districts where they deal with issues such as school board governance, board member ethics, student records, collective bargaining, tenure issues, internal investigations, special education law and student discipline. You can work on litigation in both federal, state, and administrative courts but also counsel school districts on various issues. For example, I recently presented on implementing best practices regarding sexual harassment and Title IX investigations and another was counseling a school in response to issues related to the LGBTQ Curriculum statute in New Jersey. Representing school districts is very fast paced and presents new issues almost daily. Schools often begin at 7am and you can certainly receive emails or phone calls from school administrators about any issue on a given day around this time. Finally, school boards often have their meetings in the evenings so you will often be asked to attend late school board meetings when specific issues arise and require your representation.
- Represent Parents or Students
There are law firms that represent only parents or students mainly in special education, discipline, or bullying issues at school. These lawyers must know the federal and state Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments. In addition, each state has its own unique statutes and policies relating to special education. Many of these lawyers work with parent advocates, gather reports from specialists such as speech-language therapists, psychologists, neurologists, etc. This type of practice is direct service and the majority of successful lawyers in this area obtain clients by referrals from fellow parents and families.
- Nonprofit or Public Interest Advocacy Firm
Many lawyers who work in nonprofits and advocacy groups either represent children and families or focus on broader policy issues relating to educational reform through impact litigation, legislative and advocacy work. This can be LA Appleseed, Advocates for Children, ACLU, Juvenile Law Center, LatinoJusticePRLDEF, the list goes on! Check out places in your state or your city and you’re bound to find organizations that are aligned with making an impact in education and schools.
- Government - Federal or State
Education lawyers can work in the federal or state government. They can either work for the U.S. Department of Education or the state/regional office. This type of lawyer will provide guidance regarding school board ethics, investigations regarding discrimination, and also pursue litigation on behalf of either the U.S. Department of Education or the local office.
- Represent Education Unions
Many school districts have teachers, administration, and staff who are members of an education or other local union. These lawyers personally represent union members when any issues arise regarding their employment, discipline, and tenure matters. They provide advice to members on issues regarding civil rights, education policies, collective bargaining ,and protecting members from liability. This is a rewarding career and if you work for the larger unions such as American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association, you will get a good sense of the state of education from the work of these large labor unions.
- Education Policy Analyst
Another area is for J.D. preferred education policy analysis positions. These lawyers write policy briefs or present on big issues and trends impacting the education landscape. They can work as counsel for the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee or work for education non-profits on various policy oriented initiatives. These lawyers are skilled in qualitative and quantitative sources and develop theories and end up becoming future legislation, sometimes in the long-term.
- Other Positions
While not an exhaustive list, other positions can be working as an education consultant, school liability expert, attorney for the Department of Children and Families, or a human resources professional.
3. What Classes or CLEs to Focus On
While in law school or as a practicing lawyer, make sure you take advanced constitutional law courses, administrative law, family law, and if available, employment law, juvenile justice, and education law. Do what you can to align your cases and experiential learning with a focus on education law. Choose internships at public interest advocacy firms or law firms that have an education group. If there are opportunities for clinics at a children’s law advocacy organization or special education law, prospective education lawyers should take advantage of that.
4. Resource Tip
Learn as much as you can about various practice settings for an education lawyer and do not limit yourself to law firms. However, if you work for a law firm, you still may get a bit of general litigation practice especially early on in your career. As you continue in this area, you will see that the more seasoned education/school lawyers have developed a specialty, either focusing on representing school districts or representing families/students.
Being a school/education lawyer offers so much variety and is an exciting area of law to get into especially for a former educator.
The U.S. Department of Education’s website has an extensive amount of resources for any education lawyer, whether representing schools or the parents/students. Visit resource here
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