Educators & the Law: The Benefits of Having a Law Degree

Educators and the Law: The Benefits of Having a Law Degree

Martin Pritikin
By Scott F. Johnson

Educators who work in elementary and secondary schools deal with a myriad of laws on a daily basis. This includes all level of educators: teachers, aides, administrators, principals, and service providers who educate students or provide them with related services, such as counselors, therapists, pathologists, and other specialists.

A Variety of Laws

These laws come from three levels: federal, state, and local government. It can be a challenge to keep up with all of them. One of the most well-known examples at the federal level would be the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires schools to identify, evaluate, and provide services to students with disabilities. Examples of common state laws include curriculum requirements, discipline requirements, and employment requirements (such as teacher certification and licensing). Local school board policies implement federal and state requirements and can provide even more detailed requirements that educators must meet in all of these areas.

Also, don’t forget about constitutional requirements such as free speech and limitations on search and seizure. Questions like “Can I discipline a student for making fun of his teacher on Facebook?” or “Can I search a student If I receive an anonymous tip the student is selling drugs?,” are fairly commonplace in today’s schools. Educators are the ones that have to make decisions about what to do on a moment’s notice, and their decisions are often based on their understanding of legal requirements. These decisions can lead to compliance issues, and to legal claims against them and the school.

Understanding Laws and Compliance

Having a law degree, whether it is a Juris Doctorate (JD) or an Executive Juris Doctorate (EJD), can help educators better understand the laws that they must deal with on a daily basis, so that they can make decisions that comply with the laws. Law school is where you develop the legal analysis skills you need to excel at managing legal and regulatory issues. These skills include learning how to interpret the legal standards from statutes, regulations, and court cases. These skills can help educators understand the requirements of a law, and apply those requirements to new situations, facilitating compliance with the laws when new situation arise. 

Professional Development and Career Development

The benefits of having a law degree can also include opportunities for professional development and career advancement as well. For example, educators must participate in continuing education courses as part of their certification or licensure requirements. Law school classes are eligible in some states to meet some of these requirements.

Having a law degree can also help teachers move up into administrative positions such as principal, and help principals move up to more senior administrator positions. These types of administrative positions often require frequent interaction with laws and knowledge of how to interpret them.

Administrators often deal with attorneys for student discipline or special education matters, or for employment issues. Having a law degree can be of great value to helping the administrator make decisions in these areas, and to understand what the attorney is saying about the law’s requirements. In some situations, the administrator may be able to serve as the school’s attorney themselves.

Helping Others

Another area where having a law degree can be useful to educators is in helping others, and you do not have to become a licensed attorney or stop being an educator to do so. One example would be representing fellow educators in union grievances as a union representative. Similarly, assisting educators in state administrative proceedings for licensure or discipline can often be done by someone who is not a licensed attorney.

Becoming an Attorney

Another option for those who receive a Juris Doctorate is to become a practicing attorney. There are a variety of options for attorneys in education law, including representing schools, educators, or students in disputes involving employment, discipline, or special education. Attorneys are often involved in these matters and provide a valuable service to the parties in helping them through the process of resolving their disputes.

Scott F. Johnson is a Professor of Law at Concord Law School at Kaplan University, where he teaches Education Law and Special Education Law, among other topics. He has written a number of books and articles in the education law area, including articles regarding FAPE entitled Rowley Forever More? A Call for Clarity and Change, 41 Journal of Law & Education 25 (2012), which was cited by the parties in Endrew F. in  briefs to the Supreme Court, and Reexamining Rowley: A New Focus in Special Education Law, 2003 B.Y.U. Educ. & L.J. 561, 580-584. Professor Johnson’s law practice included education and special education cases and he currently serves as a special education hearing officer for a state agency.