Skip to main content
Law School Transparency logo

Helping Schools Work with Families, Regulations, And More

Mar 1, 2016

Seamus Boyce is an education lawyer at a mid-size firm with offices throughout Indiana. In this episode, he tells us about routine work advising clients with one-off questions, as well as more complex work involving student services, discrimination, and legislation. Seamus also discusses his ascent to partner and the choices his firm makes in pursuit of client satisfaction. Seamus is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

Transcript

Host:

From LawHub, this is I Am The Law, a podcast where we talk with lawyers about their jobs to shed light on how they fit into the larger legal ecosystem. In this episode, Aaron Taylor interviews an education lawyer who discusses the wide variety of legal matters he handles for K-12 schools and universities.

Aaron Taylor:

We're joined today by Seamus Boyce, a 2006 graduate of the University of New Hampshire School of Law. He's a partner at Church Church Hittle + Antrim, a 38-person law firm with offices throughout Indiana. Seamus, your practice area is more defined by your clients, which are schools and other educational entities than it is by particular practice areas. So tell us more about your clients and what types of legal matters you handle for them.

Seamus Boyce:

I represent all forms of educational entities. I represent a specialized client, don't necessarily have a specialized area of law. So with representing schools, universities, all different forms of educational entities, there's a lot of laws that apply to them. There's a lot of laws that overlap with those type of entities. But what I typically do in my role is address day-to-day questions and anything that would affect a school entity, so I'm essentially out-of-house counsel. I will often be the first point of contact or threaten litigation or an actual filing of litigation or some kind of administrative process that's been initiated. Sometimes I will continue to be the point person. Other times I will either be working with another attorney in the office and all they do is litigation. Or I might even be working with an insurance carrier's in-house counsel. It just kind of depends on the subject matter.

So something that is just more run-of-the-mill, a typical tort claim, a slip and fall, a vehicle accident, something like that involving one of my clients, I probably would not be the point person. I might still be in the loop, but my direct involvement is something that's more specific to regulation of schools, like discrimination claims, like special education, like certain employment litigation.

Aaron Taylor:

So your clients transcend K-12 education as well as higher education?

Seamus Boyce:

That's correct. Not just K-12, not just universities, not just public, not just private, they tend to be more volume from public just for the simple reason that public schools are more regulated than private schools.

Aaron Taylor:

So you say you serve in the role of outside counsel. What does that entail?

Seamus Boyce:

So I'm a partner in a law firm, so I'm not employed by my client, have the attorney-client relationship with them. Some have in-house counsel, so I'm either communicating with them or I'm communicating with the administrator, whether it's a superintendent, whether it's some other cabinet-level administrator, and addressing the questions and legal needs that they have. Some of those are day-to-day calls, emails, other types of quick communication. Other engagements are more involved, larger in scope.

Aaron Taylor:

So on what types of legal issues would an educational entity opt to engage you, as opposed to handling it with the lawyers they have in-house?

Seamus Boyce:

Whether they're engaging their in-house counsel or maybe their attorney that's more local to them in their town or in their city. I will tend to address the issues that are more related to schools and specific to school regulation. More than half of a regular day is responding to communications, emails, calls that might pop up that day or the previous day that we just did a short scheduling for. And then the remainder of my day might be something that's more involved in terms of contract development, developing some kind of policy. Sometimes it depends on the time of the year. For example, I think this is being recorded at a time at the end of the Indiana General Assembly session, and I will have more involvement with issues that are related to legislation. Other times of the year might be more heavy in employment matters or policy development.

Aaron Taylor:

So how has your work evolved?

Seamus Boyce:

So I have been with Church Church Hittle + Antrim for 10 years. And I think, like probably many other young associates, when I first started I was probably extraordinarily less efficient than I am today. I was more reliant upon other members of the firm to provide me with tasks and responsibilities, and that has evolved quite a bit to now where I have most of the clients and the client contacts will be reaching out to me directly, and I'm less responding to what other attorneys might be providing to me in terms of tasks or work product.

Aaron Taylor:

So a big part of your work now is business development?

Seamus Boyce:

Whether it's business development or just having clients that contact me directly with their questions, rather than having it filtered through other attorneys.

Aaron Taylor:

So you mentioned the Indiana legislative session. Does that mean you do lobbying to the state legislature on behalf of your clients?

Seamus Boyce:

So I am a registered lobbyist. Certainly I'm being asked to follow on a request from a client's or a group of clients' request to change and influence language in legislation. Sometimes it's more fundamental. Perhaps there's some research, there's some early-level policy development that might lead its way to eventually becoming legislation, but it's actually not during the session. And then other times it's, okay, the session has just concluded and now we're trying to figure out the interpretation of some of the language that just passed. So it's not always "lobbying," but many of the things that I do are certainly influenced by the legislative sessions.

Aaron Taylor:

What are some of the, I guess, main differences between representing a K-12 educational entity and a higher education entity?

Seamus Boyce:

There are several fundamental differences. One is you have very different laws that apply to K-12 versus post-secondary colleges, universities. There are also, in many ways, the same. Many employment issues. There are quite a few statutes that apply to both K-12 and post-secondary. And then liability issues, discrimination issues. Many similarities.

Aaron Taylor:

Are there particular legal matters that typify K-12 education?

Seamus Boyce:

A really good example of a K-12 issue that doesn't apply to post-secondary is the Individual Disabilities Education Act. In Indiana that's referred to typically as Article 7, that's the regulatory provision. But IDEA is something that does not apply to post-secondaries. The concept of IEPs and IEP teams, those are things that post-secondary world just doesn't deal with.

Aaron Taylor:

What does your work in the context of special education look like?

Seamus Boyce:

Special education based in the federal IDEA statute, it's a large statute, large regulation. And it has to do with the identification, the eligibility process of students with disabilities, and then the process of developing a individualized plan for those students. I will frequently get involved on the professional development, as well as the policy development. Involvement for attorneys tends to be heavy on when disputes actually arise. So if there's a disagreement between a school and a parent about whether a student is actually eligible for special education or an individualized plan or a particular provision. So the type of services that the student is going to receive. So if there's a disagreement, there's an administrative hearing process that is included in the law, as well as mediation and certain procedural safeguards in place for families. So I will help schools navigate those requirements, and then oftentimes be the point person for trying to resolve the matter. The statute is designed to be a resolution-friendly process. It still will be adversarial at times, but it's designed to be not adversarial.

Aaron Taylor:

All right. So give us an example of, I guess, kind of the nature of a special education dispute between a family in the school.

Seamus Boyce:

So I think a common example of a dispute that might lead to what's commonly referred to as a due process hearing in a IDEA claim, is where a family wants a particular type of service program to meet their child's needs. The school feels like it can address the needs of the child based on a program that they have, but the parent wants a particular program that the school doesn't have. So if something like that were to happen, if I don't have the context for the situation, I haven't been involved in it, then I'm gathering information about what the positions are of the school and the parent, with some background information. Probably talking to some administrators, maybe even some teachers. And then making a determination about whether I'm going to recommend that the school resolve the matter in a certain way or whether the school has a defendable case to proceed to a due process hearing. When you're in that position, it's like probably any other trial. Not as many rules of evidence or procedure, but certainly many families are represented by counsel, and it's a dispute and you might have expert witnesses, et cetera.

Aaron Taylor:

So schools are in many ways microcosms of larger society. They have a wide variety of legal issues, as you've pointed out. What do you see are the main ways that schools are different though than say a private business?

Seamus Boyce:

That is a comparison that I will make when people ask, "Well, what do you do?" Because not a lot know what a school lawyer might do. And I will first explain to them that in many communities, in K-12 and sometimes universities, that school is the largest employer, they're the largest transportation provider, they're the largest food service provider. In many ways, they are one of the major mechanisms of commerce. So it is a business in some ways. But in other ways, the major difference is they're significantly regulated. For good reason, because they work with students, and many times, very young students.

Aaron Taylor:

So I want to transition to talking about the business of your law firm now. You started at your firm right out of law school, and you've been a partner for three years. That's a pretty quick ascent. So what role did bringing in new clients play in becoming partners so quickly?

Seamus Boyce:

I don't think of it so much as bringing in new clients, I think of it as doing good work, having the trust of the existing clients, and then the potential clients that would eventually be my points of contact. Hopefully I had gained that credibility, and that was a major factor in my ability to be a partner in the law firm.

Aaron Taylor:

So was the education law practice already well developed at the firm prior to you becoming an associate?

Seamus Boyce:

It had. Certainly when I started, we were not a large law firm, so very reliant on certain individuals. Since that time, we have grown. But I think the foundation was built on the individuals that were here when I arrived.

Aaron Taylor:

So I find the breakdown between partners of counsel and associates at your firm interesting. Of the 38 lawyers, 23 are partners, nine are associates, and six are of counsel. Is there any impact, I guess, of more than a 2.5:1 partner to associate ratio?

Seamus Boyce:

Our law firm doesn't necessarily think about associate versus partner, in terms of the work they get. I think partners, just because they're more established, have established client contacts. Maybe have been in practice longer. Tend to be the point of contact for clients and get the work requests more frequently than associates. Given that we as a firm probably have more partners than associates, we tend to not just add associates for the sake of adding associates. Partners may organically do the type of work that maybe what other law firms that don't have that ratio would have, but we don't really think about it like that. It's dependent upon the area and the section that you work in. The section that I work in within our law firm, I think that we have a good balance between partners and associates. And I think we are constantly looking at do we have the team that will serve our clients well. And that's kind of the end game that we look at. But I think that's true for our firm as well.

Seamus Boyce:

So has your career unfolded in the way that you imagined as a law student?

Seamus Boyce:

So I didn't exactly know how the field of education law was going to play out, or exactly what I would do when I went to law school and even when I started with the firm. I think that in hindsight, it makes sense, the type of work that I do. I think that there are some experiences that somebody has in practice that will guide them to the future work that they do. So I think some of the experiences that I have have opened some doors for me, both in a substantive area and the type of schools and educational entities that I represent and that our firm represents. With the area that we work in we are somewhat at the whim of regulatory changes that are made. But at least we can envision what that might look like in the future, both on the federal and the state level.

Host:

I Am The Law is a LawHub production. Don't forget to subscribe and rate this show on your favorite podcast app.

Episode #34 Episode #36

Related episodes