Working in Education Law in Chicago: A Conversation with Terrence Way, NDLS 2018

Recently, I talked with one of our 2018 Bank of America Foundation Fellows, Terrence Way. Terrence just completed his one-year BOAF Fellowship at Chicago Public Schools, Law Department. Through his project, Terrence established a new program that connects Chicago Public School students with local unions and possible apprenticeships and he worked in the Labor and Employee Discipline Unit, dealing with dismissal hearings of city employees. I talked to Terrence about the work he did through his fellowship, his advice for law students, and how he got where he is.

KMB: Introduce yourself, where you are working, and generally what you are doing. What do you do day-to-day? Client work, policy, etc?

TW: I am working for the Chicago Board of Education in the Labor and Employee Discipline department doing employee discipline hearings between the Board of Education and those who represent CPS employees. I also represent the Career and Education Department, which gets students involved with work opportunities in construction, manufacturing, and engineering.

I have a caseload that includes looking at investigations, drafting charges, leading direct and cross examinations, preparing witness, gathering evidence, and communicating with Union representatives. I work with attorneys on briefs, motions, and different research assignments. With CPE, I am a partnership development liaison, which requires me to initiate and cultivate relationships between CPS and businesses interesting in having a relationship with us.

My cases involve accusations and allegations of CPS employee misconduct. Employees vary from principles to custodial staff to teachers as well as non-traditional CPS employees such as those we contract with. I investigate those and draft charges based on investigations that are brought to me.

KMB: Can you give me a specific example of something you have worked on?

TW: With the Law Department, I would do employee discipline cases so if someone was caught taking money from another employee or CPS itself, was intoxicated on the job such as if they had alcohol on their breath, or engaged in sexual misconduct. We would investigate those cases and initiate discipline if warranted.

I was also part of the trades to apprenticeship pipeline program. I was responsible for the building management company SodexoMAGIC. If a building manager was working on a thermostat in a CPS school for instance, I worked with them. I orchestrated and created a program based on career and technical education students who desired to participate in a given field. Through this program, the student is set up with an internship that turns into an opportunity for that student to be sponsored into the relevant Union.

KMB: Why is your job important? What need are you meeting?   What would happen if you and your group weren’t there?

TW: We are acting as the protectors of CPS in that if there is a legitimate allegation of misconduct from a CPS employee, chances are it is going to impact the learning process in the school. If a custodial employee is taking stuff from students’ lockers, how can the student come to school the next day and expect to feel safe? If a coach is posing a threat to the student physically, it inhibits ability of student to come to class and get the most out of it.

KMB: What about private attorneys? Most students here will go into private practice. How do private attorneys pitch in on your work?

TW: I will come into contact with a lot of private attorneys in the disciplinary hearings. Various unions choose to have an attorney come in, in addition to a union representative and those attorneys representing the employees in the disciplinary hearings.

KMB: Tell us a story to help us understand the challenge and the rewards of your work. Tell us about one of your clients, about something interesting or surprising that’s happened to you.

TW: There were a number of things that can come across my desk and they are all in the vein of protecting the school system and students, which  means protecting the future of Chicago. Going into work everyday and getting a new case every week or so was like being thrown into the deep end but at the same time, I felt motivated because I knew what I was here for. Instead of being intimidated by the deep end and flailing my arms, I learned how to swim. I was working to better the children’s education and understanding that early on motivated me a great deal.

KMB: What is the path that took you to this job? Is this something you imagined doing when you entered law school? How did you get from where the first year students are sitting today to your fellowship?

 TW: I am from Detroit and what is crazy is I wrote my essay for admission about what I wanted to do with my law degree. It talked about the resources I would have as a lawyer and one of the things I remember writing about is bettering public school systems.

As far as the Bank of America Foundation Fellowship Dean O’Rear informed me about it, I applied, and I was awarded the fellowship. Katelynn, you told me about the opportunity to work at the Law Department with Susan Galan, a Double Domer, connected me to her, and as soon as I  talked to her and learned about her wisodm, it seemed like a no brainer.

KMB: Think back to your first year of law school. What were your impressions when you started law school about public interest law? Were there stereotypes? What was the buzz? Then talk about how the reality may differ from what you thought originally.

TW: Being a first generation lawyer, I didn’t know much about public interest when I started law school. Over the first few years of law school, you hear about public interest, which means you’ll be sending someone to jail or working for the ACLU. It won’t be glamorous like the ritzy private firm lawyer life, all of whom have champagne with salmon at lunch on Thursdays. I didn’t consciously internalize those silly ideas but kind of had that impression of it.

Shortly after my interactions with Galilee and public interest programs at ND, that impression was quickly thrown out the window. There are a variety of practices in public interest. Especially after this fellowship, I know now that any kind of impression you hear disparaging public interest, get more information. You’ll be surprised.

KMB: How do you manage your student debt? How can you afford to do this work?

TW: I was able to postpone my loans because of the kind of work I am doing. The fellowship provides me with enough to live. If you go into public interest law, you can work with the loan servicers.

KMB: Do you have any other advice you want to give to 1Ls?

TW: Networking. Networking. Networking. Ask questions. That’s how I gather information in this profession everyday. Ask superior attorneys, Notre Dame mentors, etc. 9/10 they have the answer and when they don’t, they send me to someone who will. Be open minded. Some people have come to law school knowing they are going to work for a certain government agency or go private but three years is a long time so keep an open mind as to what you can do in the profession in general.

KMB: What are you future plans for after the fellowship?

TW: I want to go into labor and employment law. This was my first year working any kind of real job and I learned a lot. Specifically, I learned that labor and employment lawyers draft employee manuals and with the organization of a contract, an entity can do arbitrations in a closed universe setting where hearings are done out of a court. That’s a really interesting field of law and I like the opportunity it offers.

Terrence is happy to speak with students interested in public interest, education law, or Chicago. If you want his contact info, reach out to me and  I am happy to connect you.

 

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