My practice is focused on education law with a specialization in special education and students’ rights. I primarily counsel and represent school districts and other learning institutions with respect to Individualized Education Program meetings, Illinois State Board of Education complaints, Office for Civil Rights complaints, mediations, due process hearings, residency hearings, homeless dispute hearings, student and faculty discipline, and policy enforcement and implementation.
My practice also entails counseling and representing school districts and other learning institutions regarding personnel issues, school business matters, board governance matters, Freedoms of Information Act requests, Open Meetings Act compliance, and other day-to-day issues that crop up. Further, I represent these clients in litigation in state and federal court as well.
How has your practice evolved in the last few years?
The education law field is ever-changing. Every year brings new types of students, new parents, new teachers, new administration, new board members, and, of course, new state and federal rules and regulations. Rarely is there a cookie-cutter solution to an issue, and rarely is there just one decision-maker on any given issue.
The growth of technology and electronic communications has created its own new set of issues for education lawyers, educators, parents and students. For example, many students now have smart phones that they use to text their friends or post on social media websites. Even if students are prohibited from using smart phones at school, the messages/photos/videos they send and receive while using them off-campus may affect the school environment and implicate myriad aspects of education — from policies and procedures governing discipline and bullying to students’ First Amendment freedom of expression rights. Federal and state statutes and regulations are scrambling to keep up with technology, but in the meantime we must do our best to interpret existing statutes and regulations while balancing competing client interests.
If you could offer one piece of advice for young lawyers, what would it be?
Never stop pushing yourself. It is easy to become complacent — to feel like you’ve learned your role in a particular job and that you can relax and run on cruise control. That’s when you get in trouble, either because you miss a critical legal development or, worse yet, you become lethargic. The job you have now may not be ideal or even in your preferred practice area, but that does not mean you are limited to what it offers. Chase the experience or practice area you really want through involvement with bar associations and pro bono work, and you will eventually create the opportunities you are looking for.
What is the one technological device you could not function without daily?
I could not function without e-mail and, by extension, my smart phone on a daily basis. The ability to quickly exchange information and draft documents with clients and colleagues alike is essential to legal practice. Even when I am not able to immediately, substantively review and answer a client’s question, simply being able to acknowledge receipt in a timely manner and provide the client with an anticipated response time goes a long way toward fostering and maintaining trust. By that same token, however, it is important to remember that immediate responses are not necessarily warranted or recommended, depending upon the circumstances. In this day and age of instant gratification, I find I must constantly remind myself to slow down and fully ponder matters — and that it is perfectly alright to take some time when responding to e-mails.
How has civility made a difference in your practice of law?
Be it student discipline, special education, labor relations, board governance or policy matters, situations which education lawyers regularly deal with can be intense, highly charged and emotional. Civility and empathy make all the difference in these situations. The “one bad apple” idiom holds true for all attorneys. No matter how involved in a case/issue/position you become, civility is a must. Your opposing counsel is also an advocate for his/her client and goes home to a family at the end of the day too. While it’s hard to remember that at times, the best way to keep that in mind is to remember that the legal profession in Illinois is a small world.
While most attorneys give a huge story here about something, I’ll share something that happens all the time. At least once a month, I receive a call from an opposing counsel requesting a favor, such as more time to respond to a motion and, by the way, he cannot make the court appearance so can I report his need for more time to the judge? While some attorneys may look at these situations as an opportunity to take advantage of an opposing counsel, I do not. Here is my learning lesson on professionalism and civility: Do your opposing counsel a solid when you can, so long as you do not go against the client’s wishes or do anything to the detriment of your case. Most practice areas are small, and you will likely find yourself at odds [with] or even on the same side as that other attorney later on. There will be a time when I need a solid, and if I do not extend a courtesy to another attorney when they need it, I certainly won’t be granted any courtesies in return.
If you were not practicing law, what would you be doing?
Running a bookstore-café that hosted weekly quilting circles, knit-a-longs, fun runs and group bicycle rides. Of course, I would have to finish paying off my student loans first.…
Maryam Brotine is an Associate at Robbins Schwartz, Ltd. in Chicago. She was named the Illinois “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers Magazine in the area of Schools and Education Law (2011 & 2014).