August 17, 2022


Legal With Effect

Law Firm Drops School District as Client | News

When the Moore County Board of Education reviewed a new retainer agreement with its longstanding law firm earlier this year, member David Hensley suggested that the board might be better off with a new legal team.

The rest of the board disagreed and approved a slight increase in Tharrington Smith’s fees. But Hensley is getting his wish, and the school board is gearing up to advertise for a new law firm.

Neal Ramee, who has been the district’s lead contact for legal matters in recent years, informed Chair Pam Thompson on March 31 that the Raleigh firm will part ways with Moore County Schools effective June 30.

Ramee is one of 18 attorneys in Tharrington Smith’s education law division. The firm represents about 25 of North Carolina’s 115 public school systems. Moore County Schools had been a client since 2005.

Ramee’s letter did not give a reason for the firm’s decision to drop the district as a client.

Neal Ramee

Neal Ramee has been the lead attorney for Moore County Schools for several years.

“It has been an honor to represent, advise, and advocate for Moore County Schools for the past 17 years, and we value the many strong, collaborative and professional relationships we have formed with a host of committed school board members, central office administrators and school-based staff over that time,” the letter reads. “We are proud of the legal guidance and advocacy we have provided to the district and will work diligently to effectively transition any active matters to new legal counsel.”

Nor did board members say publicly during their work session on Monday why their long standing legal firm was dropping the district after the board just renewed its contract two months ago. Board members aired their reviews — mostly positive — of Tharrington Smith’s legal services in February when the firm raised its hourly rates for the work of partners, associates and paralegals by approximately 10 percent.

But changes in the relationship were already underway in February for Tharrington Smith. The firm told the district then that it was being assigned a new attorney in the firm.

During that February review of legal services and spending, Andrew Cox, the district’s executive officer for budget and finance, reported on trends over the last five years.

Between 2016 and 2021, Moore County Schools spent more than $1 million with Tharrington Smith. The district’s legal bills were the highest in 2020-2021 at $258,820. Cox said that additional work related to real estate matters led to a slight increase in expenses.

Education law is a niche practice, and Tharrington Smith specializes in it, among other practices. Attorneys for school districts are most visible when they sit in on board meetings and handle matters like minutes and parliamentary procedures. But they also work on real estate, personnel matters, policy issues, regulatory guidelines, public records requests, lobbying and lawsuits filed against the district.

Hensley has repeatedly been a sharp critic of the district’s attorneys. In February, he accused Tharrington Smith of offering “demonstrably wrong” opinions during open board meetings and when consulting on legal issues behind closed doors.

“It’s been my experience, sitting here for a year, and I’ll cite several examples — others exist — that legal opinions made on the fly at school board meetings do not withstand the test of time, i.e. they turn out to be wrong,” he said.

He specifically referred to an instance where Ramee provided an on-the-spot response to Hensley’s own challenge to the board’s established procedure of approving the academic element of school improvement plans before reviewing their confidential campus security plans.

Hensley also challenged previous Superintendent Bob Grimesey’s acceptance of a $1.4 million state grant to fund on-campus COVID-19 testing without board approval. The board later voted to endorse the plans to expend those funds even though Ramee indicated that such a vote wasn’t necessary.

Hensley also suggested that the board shouldn’t pay for a lawyer to attend regular meetings.

“We do not need an attorney billing several hundred dollars an hour to be our record keeper,” he said. “We’re paying an attorney to sit there and be a scribe. We could have a high school student do that.”

Regular meeting minutes are kept by the school board’s clerk. The board’s attorney is typically only responsible for minutes during closed sessions, where regular school staff are not present.

But the other six members of the board overruled Hensley’s objections and approved new higher rates for Tharrington Smith. Board member Robert Levy noted that the firm’s rates are “quite a bargain,” and that he himself charges more than twice as much when he performs legal work for California clients.

“I think if Mr. Hensley wants to look for other law firms, I’m always open-minded and this sort of thing,” he said. “But I think we have to keep what we have, at least for right this second.”

Vice-Chair Libby Carter said that Moore County Schools has benefited from Tharrington Smith’s extensive experience in education law and work with other North Carolina public school districts.

“As one of the largest firms representing school systems, they are continually staying abreast of matters that are approaching our schools, whether it’s COVID-19 parameters and the way it affects students, to Title IX issues and the changes that have come along with new government guidelines, to simply how many children can be seated on a school bus,” she said.

“They are in the forefront of knowing what is coming to schools and what the legal approach to these issues might be.”

Tharrington Smith may continue with the district beyond June 30 to the resolution of any outstanding legal matters.

On Monday the board will consider approving the language Moore County Schools will use to solicit inquiries. As proposed, the board will consider qualifications and fee structures of other law firms interested in representing the district, but the board is not obligated to select the attorneys who quote the lowest rates.

Interested firms will have less than three weeks to respond prior to the board’s May work session if the request is approved and posted on Tuesday.

“There are probably only about five or six law firms, maybe, in the state, who can take up this sort of stuff, if we decide we want someone who’s experienced in school board matters,” Levy said. “I’d like to get those five, six, whatever law firms that do it at least to know that we’re interested.”