Bohn, Susan K.
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ABSTRACT Evolving laws and legal court interpretations have caused the practice of school law to expand and the need for school districts to receive competent legal advice to become more important in their daily operations (Whitten, 1997). The biggest decision related to legal services that the leadership of a school district must make is whether to rely primarily on lawyers who work outside or inside the organization (Dillon, 2009). Although there is no right answer to the in-house versus outside lawyer question, and although a number of perceived benefits and disadvantages come with each arrangement, a trend is current among Texas public school district leaders to make the choice to create in-house counsel positions to manage legal issues (Crump, 2008). The purpose of this study was to provide useful information to school district leaders considering this in-house counsel arrangement by examining the perceptions of leaders in three Texas school districts that decided to hire an in-house attorney and one school that chose not to do so. In the study, the researcher explored the school district leaders’ decision-making process and reasons related to the decision to hire the in-house lawyer, and their perceptions of the impact of the in-house lawyer on the district’s leadership team and any organizational change initiatives. In contrast, the study also endeavored to provide the perceptions of leaders at one Texas school district that considered the in-house model, but ultimately decided not to create the position. In this qualitative study, the researcher used a multiple case study approach, and data was gathered through semistructured interviews. Demographic data about the subject school districts was compiled to provide descriptive context. The researcher found that school district leaders considered the in-house lawyer model because of (a) concerns about the effectiveness and efficiency of the management of legal services; (b) particularly difficult, specific legal issues; and (c) perceptions that an in-house attorney might reduce legal costs. Leaders’ decision-making process included gathering information from their professional colleagues who worked with in-house lawyers or were perceived to be school law experts. The most significant point of analysis and deciding factor in deciding whether to hire an in-house lawyer was the perceived financial impact of the in-house counsel arrangement. The findings of the study included that as the new in-house counsel joins a district leadership team, there can be some adjustment and a time period in which the lawyer and other leaders come to understand the most efficient and effective use of the in-house lawyer. The in-house counsel is seen to be a member of the leadership team just as any other leader, participating in planning and decision making for district initiatives. Administrators have frequent communication with the in-house lawyer, and leaders supervising human resources or special education are more likely to have daily contact with the in-house counsel. Much of the in-house lawyer’s work is preventative, which includes day-to-day guidance to administrators, maintaining updated policies and regulations that reflect the practices and needs of the district, and providing training on legal topics to administrators and other staff. In the study, the researcher found that in-house lawyers affect teaching and learning in a district directly through their involvement in special education disputes and certain special projects like the Texas District of Innovation (DOI) process. For the most part, the impact of the in-house lawyer on initiatives that are designed to improve student achievement is indirect, and related to the lawyer’s (a) participation in planning as part of the district leadership team; (b) improvement of policies, procedures, and practices; and (c) work to increase the knowledge and skills of other administrators so that they are more effective in their roles. In addition, the study showed that in-house lawyers take on time- and labor-intensive duties and responsibilities that free up time for campus and district leaders to focus on teaching and learning.