After interviewing representatives from two law firms Thursday, the Lee County Board of Education will decide on its new attorney Tuesday.
The board’s current attorney, Jimmy Love, plans to retire June 30 after more than 40 years of representing the school board, he said Friday.
Love was born and raised in Sanford before earning his undergraduate and law degrees at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He went on to clerk for the then-Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court and practice law in Sanford.
Love was a member of the N.C. House of Representatives for more than 14 years before becoming attorney to the Lee County Board of Education and Central Carolina Community College. He said he plans to continue his work for the college after retiring as attorney to the board, but it will be a big adjustment after decades of service.
The Brough Law Firm
On Tuesday, the school board first interviewed S. Ellis Hankins of The Brough Law Firm, a longtime lawyer who earned his undergraduate, law and master’s degrees at UNC Chapel Hill.
Before working at the Brough Law Firm, Hankins worked in private practice and for the N.C. League of Municipalities as general counsel, chief legislative lobbyist and executive director. Hankins also does consulting work and teaches at UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State and Duke universities. He is married to Leanne Winner, the executive director of the N.C. School Boards Association.
The Brough Law Firm, based in Chapel Hill, represents city and county governments across the state as well as the Rockingham County School System. They employs seven lawyers as well as support staff, Hankins said.
If hired, Hankins would serve as the primary board attorney and his colleague Brady Herman would serve as a backup in case Hankins is unavailable.
“We think our job is to give you good, sound, defensible advice,” Hankins said. “Certainly to answer your questions, but to help you the best we can, help you accomplish your policies and priorities.”
Many of the guiding principles for school boards come directly from the state statute, Hankins said.
“A lot of it is just statutes and piecing those together,” he said. “Finding where in here it says what you must do, and how you can do the things that you want to do, and whether you can.”
Sometimes there will be a legally defensible way to accomplish the board’s goals and sometimes there won’t, but “we will give you a straight answer,” Hankins said.
Although the Brough Law Firm primarily represents local governments and has less expertise in education law, Hankins said they are dedicated to providing the best service possible.
“We will learn, we will ask questions and we will get to know the key folks, starting with you all and your policies and your priorities,” he said.
Hankins said one of the strengths of the firm is that they understand the working relationship between the elected board and the superintendent.
Herman, an associate with the firm, also said he is familiar with working to collect fines and forfeitures for school boards, which was a longtime priority for Love. The work typically takes 1-2 hours per month, excluding court proceedings, which may happen 2-3 times per year, Herman said.
The firm is also familiar with mediation and arbitration, which is typically found in construction contracts, said lawyer Nick Herman.
“It’s much better than taking a matter to court, in terms of time and expense,” he said.
The firm charges a $4,000 monthly retainer, which covers 20 hours of legal work and $185-200 per hour for any additional work. The firm does not charge for administrative support or travel time.
Also Thursday, the board interviewed Stephen Rawson of Tharrington Smith law firm, a Duke University of Law graduate who has worked in education law for eight years and served as a clerk to the N.C. Supreme Court.
Tharrington Smith, based in Raleigh, has roughly 40 lawyers who work in criminal, civil and family law, as well as education, Rawson said.
”One of the things that’s nice about that is that in the public school setting, we run into all those issues,” Rawson said. “We run into custody issues, we run into criminal defense, we run into litigation issues. If I need to, I can go to specialists in each of those.”
The education law section has 15 attorneys including Rawson, who specializes in special education, bond forfeitures and appeals. Rawson, like Hankins, has worked with the school board in the past, primarily on cases involving equal employment opportunity and children with special needs.
Special education was a major issue for the school board two years ago when they were faced with several lawsuits concerning the Exceptional Children’s Department.
“If we can keep you out of court, that’s priority number one,” Rawson said. “I love being in court but nobody else does. It’s expensive and it’s time-consuming and energy-consuming.”
Rawson added that the firm spends a lot of time, “problem-solving around special education issues.” One of the goals of the firm is to avoid going to court, because once that happens, the trust between the family and the school system is broken, he said.
“We are all about mediation and frankly, getting ahead of it,” Rawson said. “Mediation happens after the lawsuit gets filed. My goal is that lawsuit doesn’t get filed in the first place.”
Regarding forfeitures, Rawson said his goal is to make the process efficient, ensuring the school system gets the money they’re entitled to and they don’t have to pay to much to get it.
“You were elected to do a job and our role is to help you do that job,” he said. “My job is not to tell you the values of the public school system, it’s to make it easier to run a public school system, to eliminate barriers, to solve problems.”
The firm charges an hourly rate for all legal work, which is $235 per hour for partners, $210 per hour for associates and $110 per hour for paralegals. The firm does charge for travel time but Rawson said he often schedules phone calls during that time to ensure a minimum of empty billing.