Legal Information, Legal Education, Legal Advice: What's the Difference? Which Do I Need? When Do I Need It?

By Shaughnessy, Sister Mary Angela | Momentum, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Legal Information, Legal Education, Legal Advice: What's the Difference? Which Do I Need? When Do I Need It?


Shaughnessy, Sister Mary Angela, Momentum


In the last 25 or so years, interest in legal issues in Catholic school education has skyrocketed. Virtually every reader knows that the days of "whatever Father, Sister or the principal says, is what we do" are long over. When this author began teaching in the 1970s, legal issues were not a big concern of educators. Yes, we had to have fire drills and building inspections, but society, as a whole, was generally less litigious.

What does that mean for us? Contract law, statutory law and common law present real concerns. Thus, the Catholic educator, especially the administrator, has to be knowledgeable about legal issues. Lately, this author has become aware of the need to explain what legal information and education are and what they are not, as well as what exactly is legal advice/ counsel and who is qualified to offer it. Undoubtedly, the Catholic educator at different times may need all three.

Legal Education, aka School Law Education

Sadly, most initial teacher education programs offer no courses in school law; there may be some time spent on the topic in a foundations or other class, but the vast majority of first-year teachers enter the workforce with little study or knowledge of the law. It is left to principals to provide instruction, which is no doubt hard to fit in with everything else that must be covered in new teacher orientation and ongoing teacher education.

While perhaps not the in-service session most people would choose if faced with a list including such topics as "stress reduction" or "methods of teaching" one's subject area, more and more diocesan and school administrators are seeking in-service training for their teachers on the topic. Everyone must understand that courses in school law, many of which are taught by nonlawyers, and in-service presentations are not legal advice. Those sessions provide education about laws that apply to education; the information is useful and necessary, but it is no substitute for legal advice from a competent attorney licensed to practice in your state.

Legal Information

Legal information can be found in many places. The newspaper, journals and the Internet daily offer information about laws, cases and issues on the horizon. Writers often give their own opinions. Educators must understand that such opinions, even if written by lawyers, are not legal advice. Information can be useful, particularly in understanding the breadth and depth of legal issues, but it is not legal advice. It is simply information or opinions and not everything one reads is accurate. The old saying, "You can't believe everything you read," certainly applies when reading articles about education law or any type of law. It is sometimes said that if you have six lawyers in a room, you may well get ten different opinions- which reflects the reality that lawyers often change their opinions.

Legal Advice

Legal advice can and should be offered only by a lawyer licensed to practice in one's state, or someone who is or will be "associated" with a lawyer in your state. One must have a license to practice law in a given state or one must have a lawyer in that state who is willing to vouch for the lawyer-let the lawyer, as it were, practice in concert with him or her, the duly licensed lawyer.

Currently, the United States does not have national licensing of lawyers. This is no different from other professionals such as teachers, medical doc- tors, nurses. Some lawyers are licensed in more than one suite, but most hold licenses in one state. Some attorneys take the bar (licensing) exam in more than one suite when they finish law school, at which time it is commonly held that would-be lawyers know more law than they will ever know again-at least many different topics in law. …

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