This Guide is designed to give you a brief overview of the legal field in Education Law. It provides practical information regarding the types of employers and practice settings in which you can pursue a career; the personality traits that employers seek; the practical skills that you can gain during law school; and resources to further research this rewarding field.
This content is courtesy of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising at the Harvard Law School.
What is Education Law?
The United States has long acknowledged the connection between education and success, and over the past fifteen years, the education reform movement has gained momentum and instigated national and statewide educational reform initiatives. In tandem with the rise of educational reform movement, the types of careers in education law has increased.
Education law may involve representing children to ensure that they receive access to education, or it may involve focusing on the narrower field of special education law. Alternately, lawyers may work for school districts and deal with issues such as school governance, student records, collective bargaining, and student discipline. Lawyers at nonprofits and advocacy groups may also focus on broader policy issues relating to educational reform via legislative and advocacy work. Finally, lawyers may work in the educational field not as lawyers per se but as individuals who seek to change education through the use of their legal skills in school governance or reform initiatives.
Student Safety & Discipline
Whether working on behalf of students and parents or representing a school district, an issue that arises frequently is maintaining safe school environments. In light of deaths, threats and serious incidents in schools, school authorities are increasingly vigilant about safety.
With zero tolerance statutes in most states, an expulsion can mean lifetime exclusion from education. Attorneys must, therefore, carefully examine due process protections to ensure that proper procedures are followed. Attorneys representing students may need to gather evidence, coordinate evaluations, attend administrative hearings, negotiate settlements, or appeal to state court for relief. In addition, there may be overlaps with special education law which adds another layer of complexity to any disciplinary proceeding.
In the arena of policy work, attorneys may lobby at the federal or state level for increased refinement, expansion, or restriction of disciplinary language in statutes and policies. Finally, attorneys may be involved in studying and tracking school discipline data to help better inform any reform efforts relating to discipline. For example, data analysis relating to the "school to prison pipeline" helps to reveal systemic gaps and drive legislative reform where school discipline policies, such as zero-tolerance, lead to criminalization, instead of education, of students.
Civil rights of both students and teachers are a frequent topic for attorneys in education law. Attorneys must be familiar with, and provide advice about, issues as diverse as free speech in a school setting, freedom of religion, or testing for substance abuse. Searches of student backpacks, lockers, and vehicles also involve interpretation of constitutional law.
Another civil rights issue that arises in the education law arena is discrimination. Discrimination may occur at any level of educational programming ranging from elementary school through graduate school. Discrimination may be based on race, gender, national origin, disability, age, or sexual orientation. For example, students may require accommodations for a learning disability or may be the subject of harassment based on their minority status or gender.
For attorneys, these cases can involve interpreting both federal and state law. Attorneys who work for government agencies may be involved in drafting policies and regulations and may also coordinate investigations into alleged civil rights violations.
Education reform is a policy-driven initiative where attorneys help shape legislation and policy designed to improve public education in the United States. During the last decade, education reform has swept across the country to the point where each state now has some form of education reform agenda. In addition, the federal government has become increasingly involved in education reform via statutes and initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
Often, the forces used to drive school reform are litigation, legislation and policy. Attorneys pursue class action lawsuits in an effort to spur action, and this litigation often results in reallocation of financial resources so that state funding is more equitably distributed among districts in a state. Attorneys also draft legislation at the state and federal level in response to litigation or in an effort to redefine educational standards, graduation requirements, or teacher licensure.
One of the common issues in education reform is the emphasis on statewide assessments to measure progress and to determine if children will earn a high school diploma. In this context, attorneys may serve as advocates for children to ensure that tests are fair in both content and administration or attorneys may work on behalf of districts or the government to ensure that appropriate protocols are developed and followed.
Other topics of education reform include bullying and harassment (whether in person or via technology) and the development of alternatives to traditional public schools such as charter schools, magnet schools, or pilot schools.
Special education represents a complex and constantly evolving issue for attorneys involved in education law. Attorneys must know the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, each state has its own unique statutes and policies relating to special education. Attorneys representing students or school districts will often become involved in a case when parents and the school district simply can no longer work together effectively and a fundamental dispute arises. In this context, the attorney must evaluate a case, arrange for or assess educational testing, and begin negotiations with the other party.
Federal and state law provides elaborate dispute resolution options ranging from team meetings to mediation to prehearing conferences to administrative hearings. Consequently, an attorney must use an array of legal skills, including negotiation, drafting, and litigation skills. Attorneys must also be prepared to litigate a case into the state or federal appellate levels and to assess the impact of federal attorney fees legislation as a case unfolds.
Issues that commonly arise in special education include disputes about discipline of special education students, discrimination under Section 504 or the ADA, eligibility for services, the level of services necessary, or the placement options necessary for a student to receive an appropriate education in the least restrictive setting.
Attorneys who represent school districts, independent schools, or institutions of higher education may deal with issues of school governance. In this context, attorneys provide advice and guidance on issues such as employment, finance, liability, or student records. Attorneys will be expected to understand, interpret, and provide clear advice on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the Health Information Privacy & Protection Act, and applicable state laws. For example, questions arise around student access to records, a divorced parent's access to records, the interface between medical and school records, or third-party access to records.
Where can I practice Education Law?
When working in education law, you may practice in a variety of settings across the country. This section describes and provides general background information on three distinct practice settings.
These organizations may provide individual case representation, while others may use impact litigation and legislative advocacy to effect changes in education policy. There are often excellent opportunities to work directly with clients on a variety of education law issues ranging from discipline to special education to student and teacher legal rights. Working as members of legal teams or coalitions is generally a part of a non-profit attorney's work in the education field.
The advantages of working in a non-profit organization are that you will be able to work directly with clients in many organizations. In addition, you may be provided more immediate responsibility to handle your own cases and initiatives. Finally, you will be surrounded by attorneys who are deeply committed to education law, and you can receive the full benefit of their depth of knowledge. The disadvantages are that you will likely earn a lower salary than a private firm or a government agency, and, due to the sometimes fluctuating funding for non-profits, such positions may initially be project driven.
At the federal, state, and local levels, opportunities exist for lawyers to work in education law. Attorneys in the United States Department of Education's General Counsel's Office provide guidance to agency employees, draft statutes and regulations, and consult with state departments of education and schools on diverse issues relating to education. In addition, at the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), attorneys investigate allegations of discrimination based on race, gender, and disability in schools. Attorneys in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division litigate cases involving education law in the context of enforcing civil rights issues relating to discrimination, Title IX, or special education.
At the state level, attorneys serve in general counsels’ offices at state departments of education, where they perform work similar to their counterparts at the federal level. However, attorneys at the state level tend to provide more technical assistance directly to school districts and district employees. Education issues at the state level may include topics such as education reform legislation, educational policy initiation and implementation, collective bargaining, teacher licensure, and special education. In addition, attorneys may serve as mediators and administrative law judges at the state level.
At the local level, attorneys may work in a school district's general counsel’s office. In these offices, attorneys provide direct guidance to district personnel around a variety of issues ranging from student and teacher rights to contract negotiations to constitutional law issues to the implementation of both federal and state statutes. The advantages of government agency employment include generally excellent supervision and training which allows attorneys the opportunity to learn the law in a supportive environment. In addition, agency positions offer a likelihood of job security as well as a competitive salary and benefits.
Private firms involved in education law range from small firms with a handful of attorneys to larger corporate firms with an education law practice group. These firms may represent students and parents or may work with school districts, independent schools, and institutions of higher education. Firms that represent students and parents may litigate against school districts on issues relating to school discipline or entitlement to special education services.
Conversely, firms that represent districts may defend cases brought by parents both individually and collectively. Some firms also function like an outside in-house counsel for districts and provide staff training and technical assistance on a range of topics such as contracts, student discipline cases, and personnel matters.
The advantages of private firm work include direct client contact, a potentially superior salary, an efficient office environment with appropriate support services, and generally good supervision and training. The disadvantages of firm work may include the need to determine whether to represent a client based on the client's ability to pay for the services as well as the need to track billable hours.
Which personality traits make you well-suited for this?
Beyond pure academic and legal experience, employers look for key variables such as the ability to work well with others and to use interpersonal skills to achieve goals. Education law invariably involves intense interaction with constituents such as students, teachers, administrators, parents, and perhaps members of the legislature. As a result, employers need to know if you can work successfully with others to find solutions, and can communicate well with frustrated and emotional parties. Demonstrate your ability through strong references from past employers or from professors who have observed you working with other students on projects.
In addition, be passionate about your interest in education law. As a result, experience as a teacher or work in educational policy can be assets when seeking an education law position. However, the lack of an education background can be offset by other variables such as a broad public interest background in other issues or strong legal and interpersonal skills. Demonstrate your passion by highlighting your background, your course selection, or your internships.
What can I be doing in law school to help my career in Education Law?
Take full advantage of your law school options to show an interest in education law. Take education law classes, children's law classes, family law classes, or education classes. Enroll in clinical programs that provide exposure and experience in education law, special education law, or children’s law. Choose your internships wisely in order to obtain key experience, references, and building blocks for a long-term career in education law. Join extracurricular activities that display an interest in children, schools, or education in general. Conduct research on education law for a professor to show an in-depth understanding of specific issues relating to education law. Consider a joint degree program that combines your interest in law and education. Any combination of the above suggestions signal to an employer that you are serious about a career in education law.
The following links will be useful as you continue to explore this field:
- The mission of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, is to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation through vigorous enforcement of civil rights. http://www2.ed.gov/policy/rights/reg/ocr/index.html
- The Center for Law and Education is a non-profit dedicated to making a quality education a reality to all students. http://www.cleweb.org/
- The Education Law Center advocates on behalf of public school children for access to equal and adequate education. http://www.edlawcenter.org/
- The Alliance for Excellent Education is a national policy and advocacy organization. http://all4ed.org/
- The Heritage Foundation is a public policy research institute that promotes conservative principles of limited government. http://www.heritage.org/issues/education
- The National School Boards Association represents state school boards associations and advocates for public education through leadership. https://www.nsba.org/
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