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Lawyers who are well-versed in educational policy and policy analysis will have the tools to work in the private sector, the non-profit sector, or in government to counsel policy-makers, advocate for children, or assist administrators in making difficult decisions. Lawyers concerned with educational policy issues often move from the private or non-profit sector to government during their careers. For example, they may spend the first part of their career in a law firm and then move to a state or federal agency concerned with youth and education. Or they may begin their career working for a nonprofit entity focused on advocacy and then move to a government agency.

Private Practice: Although education law is a relatively focused specialization, it covers a surprisingly broad array of issues. Some private sector lawyers represent students and parents in their [...]

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Lawyers who are well-versed in educational policy and policy analysis will have the tools to work in the private sector, the non-profit sector, or in government to counsel policy-makers, advocate for children, or assist administrators in making difficult decisions. Lawyers concerned with educational policy issues often move from the private or non-profit sector to government during their careers. For example, they may spend the first part of their career in a law firm and then move to a state or federal agency concerned with youth and education. Or they may begin their career working for a nonprofit entity focused on advocacy and then move to a government agency.

Private Practice: Although education law is a relatively focused specialization, it covers a surprisingly broad array of issues. Some private sector lawyers represent students and parents in their disputes with a school or university. These lawyers most often are solo practitioners or are part of small, local firms. The most common issues they handle concern student discipline, special education services, civil rights (i.e., violations of the Equal Education Opportunities Act, Title IX, etc.), and personal injuries.

Attorneys representing schools and colleges cover these issues and more. In addition to defending tort or discrimination claims, they provide advice and counsel regarding regulatory and contractual issues. These firms handle school finance and construction projects, manage labor relations (teachers at public schools are typically unionized), and assist schools in getting the appropriate funds for programs promised by federal, state and local sources. Most of these attorneys practice at small to mid-sized, local and regional law firms.

A handful of multi-regional and national law firms (many headquartered in the nation’s capital) also have strong education law practices. These firms tend to work with large school districts or universities and are often focused on significant educational policy issues. The national firms handle the full range of legal matters faced by their education-sector clients, including regulatory requirements; civil rights issues; trial and appellate litigation; corporate transactions; joint ventures, investments, and other business initiatives; privacy, labor and employment issues; technology acquisition and transfer; and a host of other intellectual property issues. Individual attorneys at these firms, however, typically specialize in one or two of these areas. Often when law students think of education law, they think of representing either the schools or the students, but it’s important to note that a private sector practice can also include advising education-focused businesses, education foundations and institutes, or any other organization involved with the teaching, research, and public service missions of education.

Government: Aside from traditional legal representation of universities, school systems and their constituents, an important focus for education lawyers is the ongoing effort to reform the system and improve both the quality of education and universal access to education. Some tackle reform issues by becoming a policy-maker themselves, running for state or federal office, or working on Congressional committees with the power to effect educational reform. Others take leadership positions within the public school or university administration system, or in one of the state or federal departments that oversee these systems (for example, the U.S. Department of Education or a department of education in their home state). This may or may not be in a legal capacity. Education law attorneys can advise and influence decision makers in educational policy or they can actually fill those roles themselves. Consider change agents like the recent Superintendent of the D.C. School District, or the career lawyer and former executive recently serving as Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools.

Public Interest: Another career path for education law attorneys is with nonprofit organizations that advocate for educational rights and equality of educational opportunity for members of traditionally disadvantaged communities. Examples include the Education Trust, the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund (MALDEF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The Education Trust encourages colleges and universities to support K-12 reform efforts and is particularly concerned with the achievement gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from other youth. The ACLU also has litigation, advocacy and outreach programs focused on improving access to education, particularly for those segments of the population that have traditionally had difficulty enforcing their rights.

 
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