Monday, January 9, 2017
By Tyler Dahlgren, NCSA Communications Specialist
Three lawyers working in the education section of a large firm had an idea.
No, this isn’t the set-up for a bad attorney joke, but rather the beginning of Lincoln-based KSB School Law, a hip and unorthodox firm that fights its battles for the good of public education.
“We had always dreamed of forming a school-specific firm,” said Karen Haase, an education major with four years of teaching experience prior to her law career. “Essentially, we just went ahead and pulled the ripcord, jumped, and formed KSB.”
The firm is unconventional, an adjective that usually has no place in the world of law, and it starts with the name. Bucking the traditional last name-driven acronym title (i.e. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, or Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison) trend, Haase and her two partners, Bobby Truhe and Steve Williams, decided to keep it simple.
After all, when their clients call them on their cell phones (which stay on 24/7), they don’t start the conversation by addressing Mrs. Haase, or Mr. Truhe, or Mr. Williams. It’s just “Hey, Karen”, or “How’s it going, Steve?” or “Good morning, Bobby.”
“Even when we talk to kids, it’s on a first name basis,” Haase said. “I always tell the kids that I’m not a teacher any more. You can call me Karen. It reflects better on who we are.”
And just who are these forward-thinking folks operating on the second floor of the Lincoln Marriot Cornhusker Hotel building?
Well, for an apt introduction, one needs simply to visit their website, which is as unique as their name and as personable as the three are in real life.
Karen is a recovering teacher, nuts about yoga and dogs, and cheers on the Big Red. She’s also taken a stance against the Oxford comma and enjoys cooking and gardening.
Steve likes chocolate, embarrassing himself at golf scrambles, and, according to the website, dominating Bobby, father to the cutest baby in America, in fantasy football.
“If you try to keep it all separate from who you are as a person, especially in our line of work, you are not going to be very successful,” Truhe said. “Your clients have to trust you, and that is part of not only being accessible, but why we set our website up that way. We are not just lawyers, and this is not a transaction for us. It’s a very real mission and a goal to be a good member of the school community.”
The website is unlike any other firm site you’ll probably ever see, and all for the sake of transparency.
“What you see in our website is us, and that’s who we really are,” Truhe said. “Anybody that has seen us present will know, we make fun of one another when we present as much as we do on the website.”
There’s a number of esteemed school lawyers throughout the state, but just one school law firm. The advantage for a school to working with KSB is the firm’s practical experience. KSB represents several different schools, all likely to have similar issues.
“We like our clients, and for reasons that aren’t clear, they like us,” Williams jokes. “School law isn’t 9-5, and bad things happen after five and they happen on the weekends and at crazy board meetings. So we take pride in them having our cell numbers and knowing they can get in touch with us when needed.”
And at the end of the day, if they’ve done their job, the children in Nebraska’s school systems are the beneficiaries. That fact alone is enough to motivate Karen, Steve and Bobby to attack each day with energy and enthusiasm.
“It’s like a compass, we have a true north all the time,” Haase said. “That’s one of the things that makes school attorneys so happy in their practice, because it’s obvious that what we do matters.”
What is best for the kids? Finding a way to intertwine that question when applying facts of law is a challenge, but a fun one.
“You’re not always thinking of it, consciously, but it’s a guide star for sure,” Williams said. “If you are having difficulties, or there is a tough problem that a school is dealing with, you can usually step back and say to that school board or administrator, ‘Well, what would be best for the kids?’ We have the benefit of being able to consider that as a very relevant factor in how to apply facts of law.”
All three take part in speaking engagements, and believe it to be crucial for administrators, superintendents and school board members to stay up to date on policies and informed as far as the law is concerned. Even as a lawyer, keeping up with the law can be difficult, Williams said, but the leaders in the state have grasped that importance.
“That’s one thing Nebraska has done better than a lot of states, as far as being proactive,” Williams said. “We don’t have a lot of the headline litigation that you see in the national news, and there is a reason for that. Our administrators and our boards are well-trained and they know what they can and can’t do. I think a lot of that comes from these conferences they attend.”
Haase says attorneys are happiest when they do work they perceive as meaningful for clients they admire. Administrators in Nebraska’s public schools make that part easy, a sentiment echoed by Williams and Truhe.
“I believe we have some of the best administrators in the country,” Haase said. “I’m blown away all the time by the leadership in this state.”
Truhe said it’s clear that Nebraska’s educational leaders are in it for the right reasons, with providing children the best education possible serving as the foundation of their work.
“It is comforting to know that most of them started out as a classroom teacher and worked their way up, as opposed to jumping right into a principal or superintendent position,” Truhe said. “They are natural leaders. I don’t think all people who represent clients are 100 percent sure that their clients are going to have such a true north of compass.”
Last year, KSB made a monetary donation to TeamMates, a non-profit mentoring organization. This year, the firm joined in on the movement to shed light on the successes within Nebraska’s public schools, donating $5 to NPSA for every retweet on Twitter and share on Facebook a photo they uploaded received.
Working side by side with schools has given the lawyers an opportunity to see the amazing things happening up close and personal. Most of those things, Truhe said, go unnoticed by communities, state lawmakers and even the Governor.
“Schools are like long snappers,” Truhe said, using a football analogy. “If they are doing their job the right way, they are rarely in the news and don’t get a ton of attention. They don’t brag. It is really difficult to do what they do. We recognize that.”
In comparison to other areas of law, working in education is fun, and KSB doesn’t try to fight that. The three lawyers are close friends outside of the office, and though the last two years have been a whirlwind, they are already making plans for the future.
“Right now, we are working on expanding the physical space with a classroom that will have distance learning capabilities,” Haase said. “With that addition, we will be able to have people come in and participate in state-wide learning activities.”
Developing an increased interaction with school boards is also on the agenda. Voluntary board members may walk into the job and find it to be more complex than they had originally thought. That’s where the lawyers at KSB come in.
“High functioning boards are linked to successful academics,” Haase said. “We want to expand focus on providing better training for school board members.”
Haase said that getting KSB School Law up and running is an achievement that all three lawyers in the firm have a tremendous amount of pride in. She believes public education to be the cornerstone of American democracy.
“Every single child in this country is entitled to a free education, and that is different than it is anywhere else,” Haase said. “It’s like breathing to us. We don’t even think of how incredible it is that we are providing a free education to every child.”
And so, like the school administrators, teachers, boards and students across the state, the three lawyers at KSB School Law plan to do whatever it takes to make each student’s educational experience a positive one.
And when issues arise, no matter the time of day, they’re just a phone call away.