As the academic year gets under way, attorneys who represent the nearly 14,000 school districts across the country find that they are challenged like never before.

Slashed school budgets, combined with social factors including Internet harassment, school violence and employee discontent, have made the work increasingly complicated — even as billable hour rates for legal services have lagged.

“We haven’t been able to raise billing rates for a lot of years,” said James Baca, a partner at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo in Cerritos, Calif. About 90 of the firm’s 135 attorneys focus on school law.

Other school law attorneys described similar experiences. Edmund Brown of 178-lawyer Ulmer & Berne said that if he travels from his Columbus, Ohio, office to meet public school district clients in another part of the state, he can’t charge for travel time. “They don’t have the money,” he said.

And Jason Long, an attorney in the Morgantown, W.Va., office of Dinsmore & Shohl, said rates for his school law practice have remained stagnant at $240 an hour. “It’s taxpayer dollars,” Long said. “The school system always publishes expenses.”

Largely the domain of midsize law firms, school law practices historically have focused on negotiating teacher contracts, assisting in facilities financing and handling the occasional teacher disciplinary matter. But in recent years, the practice has become more complex, according to a number of experienced education lawyers who spoke to The National Law Journal. Some 40 percent of the law firms on the NLJ 350 — generally, midsize firms — have education practices, mostly representing districts rather than employees or students, who typically turn to plaintiffs firms.

Public scrutiny of school districts’ legal spending and constricted school budgets have kept Atkinson Andelson from charging more than $200 to $250 per hour for most of the California districts it represents, Baca said. “We’re doing fine,” he said, “but our clients are benefiting because we have to be price-sensitive.”

Still, the firm is spending more billable hours helping clients meet the challenges, he said. That and a high volume of business — the firm represents 550 districts in California — help offset unchanged rates.

PRESSURE ON SCHOOL BUDGETS

This year, 26 states are spending less money on elementary and high schools than they did last year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In 35 states, support for schools is running below 2008 levels, according to the center, a Washington-based nonprofit focusing on policies and programs for low- and moderate-income families.

In addition, money provided by municipalities to school districts has plunged as depressed property values have yielded lower tax revenues. At the same time, the rise in the number of charter schools, which are funded through taxpayer dollars, has created a $1.8 billion funding obligation nationwide, according a study released in August by the Rand Corp.

In that environment, collective bargaining has come to represent the biggest difficulty for California districts, Baca said — there’s not enough money to go around at schools that already were struggling with high student-teacher ratios. “Schools are cut to the bone,” he said, forcing schools to rely more than ever on their lawyers to manage layoffs and tricky salary negotiations.

In Wisconsin, restrictions on public-employee collective bargaining rights mean that the districts themselves now must devise more detailed employment policies and handbooks, said Jon Anderson, a partner in the Madison, Wis., office of Godfrey & Kahn. And grievances once settled by talking to union representatives now tend to end up in costly litigation. “Disgruntled employees who might have run to their union now are running to another lawyer,” he said. “It shows up as a discrimination claim.”

Student conduct problems, especially related to social media and online communications, are another big concern for districts, said Long of Dinsmore & Shohl. His firm represents approximately 20 of West Virginia’s 55 school districts. For example, recent suicides of teens following online taunting by classmates in New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri and elsewhere have forced schools to turn to their lawyers for help drafting policies to help prevent bullying.

Part of the difficulty in policing students’ online conduct, according to Brown at Ulmer & Berne, is to determine when the school has the duty to step in. If comments are made online during off-school hours, the administration’s obligations can be fuzzy, he said.

“Unless those things come into the school, you can’t discipline the student,” Brown said. “The hard part is finding the nexus between the electronic communication and how it impacts the school, and crafting the discipline to fall within the laws.”

Additionally, schools are grappling with increased litigation stemming from complaints made by nonteacher employees, including cafeteria and janitorial staff, Long said. “I’ve seen school districts have to incur significant costs as a result of grievances that are frivolous,” he said.

Another major legal concern is school violence, whether it stems from student or teacher conduct, Brown said. He recently handled a disciplinary matter in which a teacher left a loaded gun in his car at school and informed his students that it was there.

“And this was a school with gang issues,” Brown said. He also represents several charter schools in Ohio, a growing client base, he said.

Despite their clients’ financial constraints, attorneys who practice education law said, they find it rewarding. “When the phone rings, you never know what’s on the other end of it,” Anderson said. The variety of legal matters — employment law, First Amendment issues, cheating, religious freedom and immigration — can make him feel “like a traffic cop” as he passes along matters to attorneys with particular expertise within the firm, he said.

Another benefit: The clients pay their bills, Anderson said. Although the rates his firm can charge school districts are lower than those paid by the firm’s commercial clients, school districts remit like clockwork, he said. “If I can’t charge $350 per hour, I can charge less than that and know I’m going to paid. That’s worth a lot,” he said.

Representing schools has required Brown to tap into his public relations skills, he said, to handle press conferences and craft public statements for clients. Earlier this year, Brown went on the radio to defend Richard Allen Schools, in trouble with Ohio’s state auditor for allegedly misspending million of dollars.

Although practicing school law isn’t going to make attorneys fabulously wealthy, the pay is fine, he said. “We’re dealing with the public sector, but we’re attorneys. We make good money.”

For Long, at Dinsmore & Shohl, representing schools gives him a sense of civic responsibility. His father is an educator and as a kid, Long wanted to be a teacher. “Now, in some sort of fashion, I do help kids,” he said.

Leigh Jones can be contacted at ljones@alm.com.