Portland Public Schools’ top lawyer is not licensed in Oregon, and the state bar is investigating whether he illegally practiced law when representing the school district since June.(
top lawyer isn’t licensed to practice law in Oregon despite being on staff since June.
Jim Harris resigned after just six months on the job, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero announced Monday.
The Oregon State Bar informed Harris on Nov. 9 that it is investigating whether he illegally practiced law by serving as the school district’s general counsel before being admitted to practice in Oregon.
Harris did not respond to a request for comment sent via district spokesman Dave Northfield Monday night.
Northfield was adamant Tuesday that Harris’ exit had nothing to do with his lack of a proper license. He told The Oregonian/OregonLive Harris expects to be admitted to the Oregon bar later this month.
State board publications say that anyone who is not an active member of the Oregon bar but "appears in court on behalf of others, drafts or selects legal documents, advises others of legal rights, … holds him or herself out to be a lawyer, or has a law office in Oregon, regardless of where his or her clients are located, may be engaged in the unlawful practice of law."
School board chair Julia Brim-Edwards was caught by surprise when she learned about Harris’ lack of credential earlier this month. She asked that Harris not sit with the board or advise them during meetings until he became an Oregon Bar member.
"The lack of licensing was a surprise and now that I am aware of it, it wouldn’t be appropriate to continue to have the board advised at a public meeting by an individual who is not currently licensed to practice in Oregon," Brim-Edwards wrote to the district’s director of human resources. "This request is not based on any particular issue with the individual in the (general counsel) role, rather it is a matter of professional best practice."
Harris came to Oregon’s largest school district from Pennsylvania, where he was general counsel for Pittsburgh’s housing authority.
Interim Superintendent Bob McKean selected him in May after a national search. At the time, McKean called out a breadth of areas in which Harris held expertise. But education law was not one of them. Harris had, however, studied to teach, which McKean saw as a huge asset.
According to state bar spokeswoman Kateri Walsh, it generally takes four to five months for a lawyer credentialed in another state, as Harris was, to be admitted to the bar in Oregon. Bar publications say "the length of the application process is determined by several factors," including the speed of a character and fitness investigation, how long it takes the applicant to complete 15 continuing legal education credits and how long it takes law schools or other third parties to submit documents.
Harris’s departure paves the way for Guerrero, who took the reins in October, to hand-pick another top employee who shares his vision to lead a troubled district to better days.
Guerrero said in an email to district employees Monday that he has hired experienced local lawyer Elizabeth Large to serve as interim general counsel. He expressed confidence in her.
"I am looking forward to collaborating closely with her as we proactively work towards the resolution of all current litigation in the district," he wrote in his email.
Earlier this month, Guerrero fired his second-in-command, Deputy Chief Operating Officer Yousef Awwad. According to a spokesman, Guerrero took that step "to begin building a new leadership team that complements his leadership style."
The district is also in the midst of recruiting a new deputy superintendent of instruction and new chief academic officer.
The reason for Harris’ departure is unknown. Guerrero said Harris will continue to work for Portland schools for a couple weeks to help Large transition into the role. Guerrero wrote in his email that Harris "intends to pursue a career opportunity closer to his home on the East Coast."
General counsel at Portland Public Schools is a demanding job, especially now. Harris stepped in weeks before three new board members took office.
McKean tapped Harris knowing the legal department needed a makeover and with the intention Harris could skillfully execute change.
"He has more than 30 years’ experience in the turnaround/creation, staffing and operation of legal, real estate and construction departments," McKean’s statement when he hired Harris said. "He has a demonstrated ability to recruit and develop professional staffs."
Just how big those expectations were for Harris became evident early on. In August, The Oregonian published an investigation into how the district helped an educator evade allegations of sexual misconduct. The story prompted the board to pledge an independent investigation.
In response to the article, board member Mike Rosen blasted in-house and outside lawyers for giving the board "awful" advice on the matter. That, of course, was not a reflection on Harris who had just arrived, but did outline a firm desire for change and tough questions.
Pressure increased for the legal department to work hard on new policies to respond to sexual misconduct, including hiring an employee Harris would oversee who would handle those matters.
Meanwhile, wider scrutiny fell on a decision made by one of his deputies, Stephanie Harper, before Harris was hired. When Harper was serving as interim general counsel, Portland Public Schools sued a parent and reporter in order to keep records about paid leave secret. The Associated Press highlighted the lawsuit in a September story, which put the records battle on a national stage.
Although the district had in the past deemed this information public, Harper said that interpretation was incorrect because releasing the names of employees on paid leave could cause people to leap to an incorrect conclusion that the employee was accused of wrongdoing.
Another high-profile case also fell into Harris’ lap: a racial harassment lawsuit brought by two maintenance workers had gone to trial in May. While the jury returned a $1 million verdict, the case was not yet behind the district. Harris was called on to counsel the board as its members decided to appeal the verdict while also exploring a settlement.
Meanwhile the teachers union still doesn’t have a contract, a situation that could erupt into a strike if the district and the union don’t reach an agreement soon.
The district did not release Harris’ salary or resignation later. Northfield said the staff member who could get those materials is out this week.
It is unclear why the district permitted Harris to go five months as the district’s top lawyer without being admitted to the Oregon Bar. Northfield, the district spokesman, did not immediately respond to questions about the matter late Tuesday morning.
The Portland Public Schools Robert W. Blanchard Education Service Center on May 9, 2017.
Oregon Institute of Technology officially launched its Cyber Defense Center on Friday. The school said the center will serve as a valuable training center for would-be cybersecurity professionals, offering them valuable experience and connections to the business world (Andrew Theen/Staff)