Advice of Counsel, Part I

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Raleigh, N.C.

Ann L. Majestic is running to keep up with a work-week that is starting to outpace her.

With about an hour to go before she attends a Tuesday afternoon meeting of the Wake County, N.C., school board, Majestic, a tall woman with light brown hair, is performing her daily balancing act, weighing news of the latest school crises with the tasks at hand.

As the 44-year-old lawyer prepares for the Wake County meeting, she knows that 25 miles away in Durham, another of her school district clients is facing its latest challenge. It has just been discovered that some administrators in the Durham County schools have been working without the proper state certification, which could end up costing the district some of its state aid. The issue has played out in local newspapers for several days, and Majestic has a long meeting in Durham planned for the next day to try to sort things out.

School attorney Ann L. Majestic's caseload mirrors the myriad legal issues that today's school districts face.

As she is about to leave her downtown Raleigh office for the board meeting, she gets a phone call from someone in the Durham district. A television station has called to say there's word that 11 special education lawsuits are about to be filed against the school district.

The reserved Majestic lets out a deep sigh.

To top it all off, she is supposed to go on jury duty this week, but she asks her secretary to call court officials to try to reschedule.

"Use all your charms," she says.

The lawyer for all 11 families, Frank Johns, is quoted in the Raleigh newspaper a couple of days later saying he "will prove that for years and years [the Durham school system] failed to do what the law has required it to do" in providing a free, appropriate education to his clients. Some of the suits seek thousands of dollars in reimbursement from the district for the parents' costs of placing their children in private schools.

The Raleigh News & Observer has also talked to Majestic about the lawsuits, and the paper paraphrases her rather safe and general response: Parents and districts often don't agree on what is an appropriate education, she says, and districts must consider what is "fiscally reasonable to provide."

It is a brief public exposure for what is likely to translate into hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes work for Majestic and the other school lawyers in the Raleigh firm of Tharrington Smith.

In addition to representing the Wake and Durham county school districts, the two largest in the metropolitan area, the firm is the regular counsel for nine other North Carolina school districts. And it is often hired on an occasional basis by other districts for a one-time legal problem that might be out of the league of that district's local counsel.

Majestic and her colleagues know full well the increasingly crucial role that lawyers play in school district operations. In most districts these days, there are few school policy or legal issues that don't require the participation of an attorney. For instance, in Wake County, which includes the city of Raleigh, Majestic attends meetings to advise board members on everything from complex state education laws to Robert's Rules of Order.

Benjamin J. Ferrara, a Syracuse, N.Y., lawyer who recently finished his term as chairman of the Council of School Attorneys, points out that most school districts used to turn to lawyers for real estate deals, advice on elections, and the rare lawsuit that wasn't covered by insurance.

"Now, school districts need their services on virtually a daily basis," he says.

In a new monograph on the subject from the Alexandria,Va.-based National School Boards Association, with which the school attorneys' group is associated, Ferrara suggests several changes in society and in the legal landscape that have made school lawyers more important figures.

"Parents' fears for their children's future translate into increased demands on their schools," he says. "Employees jockeying for protection or advantage generate their own demands on the system. Being Americans, we often take those demands and resistances to court, or to the legislature for redress."

He points out that in recent decades, public employees have gained greater legal protections from job discrimination. Students' rights have expanded through court rulings and federal legislation such as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, first passed in 1975 as the Education of the Handicapped Act.

William Haberl, the superintendent of the Penn-Argyle school district in Pennsylvania, says that in years of work as an assistant principal and principal, he never realized how often a superintendent is in contact with the school district lawyer. Then, he became a superintendent.

There seems to be almost nothing that parents or employees won't consider suing over, including disputes over whether one student deserved to be valedictorian over another.

"It was a real eye-opener for me," says Haberl, who is studying the relationship between school boards and their lawyers for his doctoral dissertation at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

All but the largest districts rely on outside firms for legal representation, and school law has become a growing specialty nationwide. Ferrara's firm represents more than 100 school districts throughout New York state.

School lawyers say they enjoy their frequent contact with educators and children, and the opportunity to help school districts focus on their educational mission.

Karen James, who recently joined the school law team at Tharrington Smith from a Washington law firm, says the corporate law cases she was working on were all starting to look the same.

"So much of that was one corporation suing another over money," she recalls. "I felt like I was just watching over the transfer of funds."

Although it's only one part of the job, defending school districts against litigation is a school lawyer's most visible role. There seems to be almost nothing that parents or employees won't consider suing over, including disputes over whether one student deserved to be declared valedictorian over another. In one recent case, a family sued a district because a child was denied permission to go to the bathroom. (The family lost at every stage, but nonetheless appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.)

"There isn't anybody out there who can't claim discrimination," says Majestic. "I do think people are more rights-oriented in recent years. Everyone thinks they have rights, even when they don't."

Of course, plaintiffs' lawyers point out that school officials sometimes run roughshod over the rights of students and workers. It took years of litigation to bring about the desegregation of schools, and it has taken legislation and lawsuits to coax schools to adequately serve the needs of disabled children.

Majestic grew up a Navy brat. She was born in Honolulu, but her family settled in South Carolina and she crossed state lines to attend Duke University in Durham in the early 1970s. It was there, as a student government representative, that she came to know then-Duke President Terry Sanford, a former North Carolina governor (and later a U.S. senator), and Juanita Kreps, a university vice president who later served as secretary of commerce under President Carter.

Her exposure to university officials got her interested in college administration.

"I really wanted to be an administrator, not a scholar," she says. Majestic helped lobby for federal grants for a Washington-based higher education association, then in 1977 headed to Harvard University's graduate school of education to earn a master's degree.

"I went up there and froze my toes off for a year," she says, then took a job as an academic adviser at the University of Georgia in Athens. She quickly found that she wasn't satisfied with her career path.

At Georgia, "I was essentially signing up freshmen and sophomores for their classes," she says.

"In each of [the higher education] jobs, I kind of learned it in two years, and it became predictable and cyclical. … I knew I wanted a career with no limitations and not just a job."

She sought the advice of Sanford, who encouraged her to go to law school. Majestic says that even during her undergraduate days, while most other student government types were priming themselves for law school, she had no such interest.

"I had really eschewed law," she says. "But I have an analytical nature. My family sees me as Ann the Arguer."

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