Education Vocation: Attorney guides school district clients through maze of government regulations


by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

From the moment Joe Urban attended his first Education Law lecture in law school, he knew he had found his niche.

“Education law covers finance, labor and employment, litigation, administrative law, politics and just plain problem-solving. Most of all, schools are people,” says Urban, an attorney in Clark Hill’s Birmingham office.

“What could be more important at a basic level than ensuring kids can go to a safe learning environment where they are challenged intellectually? Schools are regulated on so many levels and under such scrutiny that maintaining such an environment in a school involves constant, solution-oriented interpersonal problem solving.”

Routinely representing school employers in collective bargaining, grievances and arbitration, unfair labor practices, wrongful discharge and day-to-day matters in personnel administration, Urban has found his practice at Clark Hill very rewarding.

“My colleagues in the Education Law practice group are top-notch,” he says. “They have a passion for schools. Many are great mentors.

“All the school boards I work with are composed of hard-working community members who want the children in their respective communities to have a world-class education,” he adds. “Most of the administrators I work with have degrees that are master’s level and above. These are long-term clients—we’ve been through ups and downs together.  I’ve been fortunate to congratulate them on marriages and births, and I’ve stepped in and comforted them when other life events happen.”

Urban notes that education law is in constant flux.

“Schools are regulated on so many levels, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the road for a moment. Michigan has gone from a very strong union state to a right-to-work state in just a few years. That’s had a huge impact on the dynamic at schools as we try to promote great labor relations in an environment where one of the centralizing forces, the union, is struggling for relevance in this environment,” he says.

“Michigan has also seen significant dilemmas related to school funding. We had a massive—over $400 per pupil—funding reduction in 2010 that has had a ripple effect ever since.”

Urban assists schools with restorative justice, a concept that was a reaction to the post-Columbine “zero tolerance” rules related to discipline. Offenders are brought together with the victim(s) in a safe environment, with the aim not only of addressing the harm, but involving the wrong-doer in the solution.

“Restorative justice tries to mitigate situations where, for example, the punishment just doesn’t fit the crime—such as the kindergarten student facing expulsion for criminal sexual conduct because she kissed a classmate on the cheek,” Urban says. “It also tries to reduce recidivism by removing what some students see as a reward for disruptive behavior—a long vacation from school.

“I think restorative justice is so successful because it goes to the core of what schools, at their best, aim for—helping kids learn and grow together.  All schools are required to use restorative justice techniques now, by law, but Farmington Hills has pioneered its use for years and has had successful outcomes.”

A Red Book (Bond Buyer's Municipal Marketplace) bond attorney and a member of the National Association of Bond Lawyers and The Bond Club of Detroit, Urban says that  other specialties, municipal finance and real estate, are subsumed in education law.

“Real estate issues are, many times, intertwined with school operations,” he says. “I think the crossover with labor, board and student issues and school finance enriches my entire practice, because there are so very many areas where these topics intersect with schools.

“Being able to explain ‘School Finance 101’ at the bargaining table—and to interpret a balance sheet—is a huge benefit to me as a negotiator. And being able to understand the labor implications of a school’s financial decisions helps me work with boards and administrations to ensure we don’t solve a financial problem but create a labor issue.”    

Urban explains that with the number of financially stressed districts so large, attorneys in this field need to know finance, labor and a host of other areas to effectively solve issues related to financial stress without collapsing the entire system. A few years ago, he achieved a 25 percent concession in wages at the bargaining table with a teachers’ unit without having to litigate and without a strike or other labor stoppage.

“This is the largest concession I’m aware of in Michigan,” he says. “I think I was able to achieve this concession because I was able to interpret and communicate financial data in a credible way to the teachers’ bargaining team—something I credit my municipal bond practice with fostering.”

In March, Urban was selected by the Detroit Public Schools Community District Financial Transition Team to chair the committee charged with drafting the Financial Transition Report. He worked with a cross-section of committed educators and supporters.

“What rarely gets reported about the district is the number of highly motivated, supremely competent people who work quietly on a day to day basis to keep the district moving forward,” he says.

Urban has previously taught as an adjunct professor at Oakland University’s School of Education and Professional Development.

“OU has a great educational specialist program—they’ve put a lot of work into giving students relevant, real world expertise,” he says. “I enjoyed the vigor and energy of new administrators and teachers who were on the move. They taught me more than I taught them, I’m sure of it, with their real world narratives of what happens in the classroom and by ‘keeping me real’ with how the law impacts their everyday activities. I’m always thrilled to find one of my students out in the world as an administrator who I can help.”

A cum laude graduate of Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Urban earned his J.D., also cum laude, from Wayne State Law School.

“It was a great experience,” he says. “I enjoyed the fact we had a downtown campus and truly engaged faculty,” he says. “Wayne students have so many opportunities—they have a phenomenal Moot Court team, a Student Trial Advocacy program and many, many ways to get beyond the run of the mill ‘law school’ experience.” 

Through a partnership between the law school and Wayne County Neighborhood Legal Services, Urban worked as a student attorney handling landlord/tenant disputes in Highland Park, where he met the first of many legal professionals who became his mentor. He also wrote for the Wayne Law Review and served as Production Editor.

“Being part of a nationally renowned law review, with all the energy it entails, was exciting and really helped me learn the scholarship side of the practice of law,” he says.

Urban was possibly the first student member of the Incorporated Society of Irish American Lawyers, after his Irish mother saw the ISIAL bus at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

“She urged me to go meet the Irish ‘Liars’—she still has her Dublin accent, and ‘Lawyers’ comes out ‘Liars,’” explains Urban, who eventually went on to serve as president.

“From the moment I showed up, the group was welcoming and hospitable. To be able to interact with members of the bench and bar from all areas was a true privilege for a lawyer wannabe. I have such fond memories of all of the many meetings we had. I still have many friends from the organization who I enjoy spending time with.”

A Livonia native who still makes his home there, Urban has a number of leisure pursuits, including reading history and literature. He is an avid weight lifter. and enjoys hiking and riding his motorcycle.

His other passion is spending time with his daughters, Sofia and Claire. “I love everything about watching them grow,” he says. “Sofia is well on her way through high school. She is a practicing yogi, secretary general of her model United Nations club, ... and has her eyes set on helping professions in health care, in psychology/psychiatry or practicing medicine. Claire just started middle school. She is a consummate negotiator already—I think someday she will be quite an effective advocate. I’m so proud of both girls.”