“[Insert Name] … Who Can I Turn To?”
By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Driving from Mid-Michigan back to Indiana this past weekend, I heard the familiar lyrics, Jenny, Jenny, who can I turn to? as I scanned for classic rock on the radio. I settled for the band Tommy Tutone, pining away about dialing 867-5309 and requesting that a young lady named Jenny give them her time and attention (Call & Keller, 1982). Smiling, I remembered a similar number that I used frequently when I wanted someone’s time and attention, myself: 893-1661.
In a different context than Tommy’s above, yet admittedly one of endearment, 893-1661 was a number that had run through my head hundreds of times in my formative years. You see, while I was a school leader, Bill was my school attorney. We talked often.
As I often think of factors helping or hindering one’s success in school administration, one’s relationship with a district’s school attorney certainly rises near the top. How often do we consider school attorneys as champions for kids, as partners in learning, or even (all metaphors of sharks and/or jokes about light bulbs aside), as public servants? We probably do not do this often enough.
In developing my perspective on how school leaders can enhance their leadership through maximizing the partnerships they enjoy with their school attorneys, I borrowed notions from William G. Ouchi’s (1981) Theory Z, which spoke favorably about the concepts of trust, subtlety, and intimacy in helping organizations achieve productivity. The same holds true in a school leader’s relationship with a school attorney. Do we all consider the notions of trust, subtlety, and intimacy as important components of the privilege of having attorney/client privilege?
How is Trust (Ouchi, 1991) a factor? Trusting your attorney’s advice is the obvious answer, but not necessarily the most important. More critical is the trust in the relationship between a building leader and his/her Superintendent or Board. School leaders must trust that they have the autonomy to contact a school attorney when needed, sometimes without going through layers of procedural permissions that will delay a telephone contact in situations of urgency. The parent waiting in the reception area with his/her own attorney would be one example – the accident that just took place in the science lab, and the resulting demands for medical attention of students, another. Allegations of impropriety, whether justified or groundless, against a staff member who is currently teaching his final class of the afternoon and has an overnight field trip planned with a group of students, would present themselves here as well.
In these situations, a good school attorney brought into a situation when a feeling of angst is tapping you on the shoulder can better assist in considering notions of potential liability so that the next few steps taken are prudent. The notion of trust involves leaders impressing upon their supervisors that they know when and under what conditions to “make the call” and that reasonable and prudent actions of leadership will be taken prior to the meter’s running. A school district should only be paying one Principal to do the job. Trust provides the “permissions” so that the telephone can be dialed when it needs to be dialed – not before … not after.
Subtlety (Ouchi, 1981) involves the school leader/school attorney communication dynamic. It provides a bit of cloak and cover for the telephone calls that are made, as the fewer people who know that a school leader is talking to an attorney, the better. Knowledge of an attorney’s involvement often raises one’s perception of the potential power and impact of any given situation. Certainly, this is not helpful when potentially litigious stakeholders become aware that you have spoken to counsel, as they may believe that they should as well.
School leaders who keep attorney/client conversations subtle may even enjoy more favorable reputations in the eyes of the staff from an intellectual capital standpoint. There is typically little utility in a leader’s quoting an attorney, unless that level of validation (or referencing) is needed. School attorneys should model subtlety while attending meetings with leadership at the school; they should arrive and leave without ceremony.
A final point: Subtlety is best managed when leaders and attorneys are interested more so in the quiet, preventative legal conversations, as opposed to the reactive ones. Preventative legal conversations call, at times, for a modest monetary investment on the front end of a given issue, before, some would argue, a need to call an attorney even exists. However, a subtle, formative approach is typically much more inexpensive than the converse, with a resultant, more-subtle impact on an institution’s bottom line. Subtlety is smart investment.
Intimacy (Ouchi, 1981) involves a school attorney’s close relationship over time with a school leader (mindful, of course, that the attorney technically works for the Board, in most cases). How am I defining intimacy? I say with a smile that most Principals would attest to the fact that intimacy can be defined by first mentioning what intimacy is not: It is not an attorney’s billing to the next whole-hour, rather than to the quarter hour. Five-to-ten-minute conversations, and many of them throughout the course of a given school year – billed fairly – build intimacy. Likewise, when leaders and attorneys appreciate and respect each other’s work over time, mutual admiration grows. Intimacy is forged.
Some questions for school leaders to ask in gauging intimacy’s depth include the following:
Does my school attorney prioritize my building’s calls or provide direct line access to his/her cell phone? Does my school attorney appreciate the fact that I do my homework prior to calling, so as not to waste anyone’s time? Do I feel comfortable making calls to my school attorney before situations get too far out of hand to as to not overcomplicate things? Does my school attorney seem happy to hear from me, because it’s me? Do I actually follow my attorney’s advice? Do we follow up with the each other to discuss how things worked out? Do I think of my school attorney at holidays and with invitations to events of institutional celebration? Do you I eat lunch with my school attorney once or twice a year, just to enjoy each other’s company? Do I try to understand my attorney’s job as much as he/she tries to understand mine?
I relish the fact that my school was a client of Bill’s for many years – and that I was the point person of contact. Seeing his smiling face at my farewell reception, with his warm nod, a heartfelt handshake, and a friendly pat on the back, I had mixed emotions, knowing that I would less-often be dialing 893-1661 for the urgencies of the moment, yet more often thinking nostalgically of the impact of his trust, subtlety, and intimacy on my leadership when I was doing right by kids and keeping my school “street legal.”
To whom do you turn, and what kind of relationship do you have?
Ouchi, W. (1981). Theory Z: How American business can meet the Japanese challenge. New York, NY: Avon Books.
Call, A. & Keller, J. (1982). 867-5309/Jenny. On Tommy Tutone 2 [Album/CD]. New York, NY: Columbia Records.
Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He encourages readers to offer comments on this Blog or perspectives of their own and hopes that his doctoral and graduate students will offer written posts for his consideration as Blogmaster in ISU’s Department of Educational Leadership.