The state’s budget crunch has forced lawyers at the Association of Texas Professional Educators to dole out bad news to some teachers who lost their jobs because of school district financial cuts.
ATPE provides legal services for employment matters for teachers and other school employees. When the state’s dwindling budget led school districts to implement reductions in force and cancel employment contracts with 10,000 teachers, the crisis affected many ATPE members, explains Donna Derryberry of Austin, the association’s director of legal services.
“It’s difficult in advising them, because they’re calling us saying they’ve been told they’re losing their jobs,” Derryberry recalls. She adds, “As long as they [school districts] follow their policy, there’s not a lot that can be done.”
But most of the time, the independent educators’ association can do a great deal for more than 110,000 members who work for Texas public schools — from janitors to teachers to superintendents. One major benefit of membership is legal representation: Each year, a member can get up to $20,000 for attorney’s fees in employment matters; $10,000 for attorney’s fees in criminal matters; and up to $8 million in coverage to pay for liability judgments in civil matters. ATPE carries an insurance policy to provide members with the legal-services benefit.
Because of the large volume of legal services the association provides its members, Derryberry says she makes extensive use of outside counsel, assigning out roughly 1,000 cases annually.
Clarke Heidrick, an outside counsel who frequently works with Derryberry in his role advising ATPE’s board of directors, says she “has a great heart for teachers and educators” and she understands the issues educators face because she was a teacher for eight years.
“She’s got a great wealth of relevant experience for what she is doing,” says Heidrick, shareholder and chairman of the board of directors of Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody in Austin.
Derryberry earned an undergraduate degree in education from Southwest Texas State University in December 1984. In January 1985 she began working as an elementary school teacher for Aldine Independent School District in Houston. While teaching, she earned her master’s in education at Sam Houston State University in 1987.
Derryberry says as a teacher, she was interested in going to law school. Meanwhile, she was roommates with her brother, who was getting his J.D.
“Watching from afar his experience in law school, that just really solidified my interest in going,” recalls Derryberry.
In 1992, Derryberry quit teaching to enter the University of Houston Law Center, earning her degree in 1995.
From 1995 to 1999, she worked as an associate with Blizzard & McCarthy in Houston, representing plaintiffs in tort cases involving defective products and medical-malpractice claims, among other things. The firm is now called Blizzard, McCarthy & Nabers.
In 1999, Derryberry joined the ATPE as a staff attorney, eventually becoming the director of legal services, where she supervises 11 lawyers and six support staff in the association’s legal department.
“Our primary role is to represent the members who are calling to access their legal services,” she says, noting her department clocks 15,000 to 16,000 telephone calls from members each year.
If a member faces a criminal matter, he can use his legal-services benefit to hire a local criminal-defense lawyer. A member facing a civil matter works with the insurer to choose an approved civil-defense lawyer. But ATPE’s in-house lawyers and a network of carrier-approved outside counsel assist members with employment matters.
For most employment-related calls, “office attorneys” help answer members’ legal questions about employment contracts, school district policies and how new laws may affect them. These lawyers open a “case” if a member’s issue requires more in-depth work, like legal research or a telephone call to the teacher’s school district.
ATPE attorneys may handle roughly 1,000 cases per year in-house, and the office attorneys close roughly 600 of those, Derryberry says.
ATPE’s “travel attorneys” help handle the next level of the association’s employment-related legal services — roughly 400 of the 1,000 annual in-house cases proceed to this stage — representing teachers in administrative proceedings when they face issues with their state certifications, filing grievances against their employers, appealing decisions over grievances and more.
For example, an ATPE lawyer or outside counsel would help a teacher file a grievance with her school district if the district failed to provide accommodation for a disability. If the grievance wasn’t resolved at that first level, the teacher could appeal to the superintendent, then the school board. Teachers can even appeal some matters to the Texas education commissioner, says Derryberry.
But the goal is always to resolve a dispute at the lowest level, she says.
“Once that dispute has made its way through the grievance process . . . those parties are going to continue to work together,” she explains.
The association’s insurance carrier has approved 11 outside firms that Derryberry’s team uses for about 1,000 cases each year.
Rick Arnett, managing shareholder of Brim, Arnett, Robinett, Conners & McCormick in Austin, says 95 percent of his firm’s work involves representing ATPE members in employment matters.
He says about Derryberry, “I have really appreciated her input, on a couple occasions, that has been critically important to handling a case. . . . She has the ability to get into things analytically and contribute thoughts you may not have had, which is obviously a real talent as an attorney.”
Among other things, Derryberry’s legal team helps ATPE’s legislative department during legislative sessions to determine how proposed bills may affect members and interact with existing law. Her team also writes legal articles for ATPE’s member publications. Derryberry spends time each year renegotiating ATPE’s legal-services insurance policy, including its annual premium and the list of approved firms. Day to day, she advises ATPE’s board, drafts and reviews contracts, assists ATPE’s human resources director and executive team, serves on the association’s policy committee and more.
“I love that every day is different; every day brings its own unique challenges,” she says.
Best Practices: Be Honest and Open
Donna Derryberry, director of legal services for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, was a teacher for eight years, then a litigator for four. She now oversees ATPE’s legal services department, which provides representation for teachers and other public-school employees in employment matters.
Texas Lawyer reporter Angela Morris emailed Derryberry some questions about her past experience and her department’s use of outside counsel. Below are her answers, edited for length and style.
Texas Lawyer: Which one thing from your previous legal experience helps you most in your position today?
Donna Derryberry, director of legal services, Association of Texas Professional Educators, Austin: I feel I have benefited most in my current position from my previous litigation and mediation experience.
TL: For what types of legal work do you typically hire outside counsel?
Derryberry: From the aspect of my practice involving facilitating individual representation to ATPE members, in addition to the ATPE in-house legal department, ATPE maintains a list of approved attorneys to represent eligible ATPE members in employment-related matters. The primary criterion for consideration and admission to the approved list is experience in education and employment law. From the association side of my practice, we seek outside counsel for issues related to IT [information technology], insurance, IP [intellectual property], employment issues and some specialized issues potentially affecting a large population of association members.
TL: In general, what steps can lawyers in private practice take to get on a general counsel’s radar for outside-counsel assignments?
Derryberry: To get on my radar, attorneys must have the legal expertise in the desired subject area and a great reputation. When hiring outside counsel, I do my homework and always check several references before engaging outside counsel. As a young lawyer, someone shared with me that an attorney’s “word” should still mean something today in the practice of law and that it was very easy to get a bad reputation in the legal community and very hard to get rid of one. The same holds true today.
TL: In a perfect world, what attributes and work habits would your outside counsel have?
Derryberry: The attributes and work habits I appreciate in outside counsel are those that allow me to establish a good working relationship through excellent communication and engaging in honest exchanges — one that can accept my strategy suggestions and also tell me when I may be off-target; one that does not surprise me in the direction of the litigation or with billing invoices; and, one that appreciates and considers that ATPE is a nonprofit.
TL: What is your favorite thing about working for ATPE compared to your past jobs?
Derryberry: I can’t just name one. I appreciate the opportunity to work with the association’s educator members as well as the talented staff I work with in the ATPE legal department. I love the fast pace, high volume and interesting issues the legal department encounters on a daily basis peppered with associational issues. This mix keeps me energized and makes most days fly by — which is always a good thing.
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