VOL. 126 | NO. 18 | Thursday, January 27, 2011
Memphis Law Talk
Hopson Provides MCS Legal Counsel
By Bill Dries
Being legal counsel for a school system is not for the faint of heart.
(Photo: Bob Bayne)
That’s true not just in Memphis and it was true in Memphis long before a charter surrender resolution ever showed up on the board’s agenda.
“You’d be surprised at how many – particularly urban – school districts, are going through equally challenging situations,” said Dorsey Hopson, general counsel for Memphis City Schools.
Hopson is only the second in-house general counsel the school system has had.
Hiring a full-time attorney on staff instead of retaining an attorney from a private law firm is a relatively new phenomenon for many school systems, especially for those that have grown to become urban school systems.
“As costs go up and strategies change, it just makes sense to have somebody in house who can kind of provide day-to-day guidance with the administration and the board and manage an ever-increasing amount of litigation,” Hopson said.
Hopson, a native Memphian, is a University of Memphis graduate and the son of two teachers. He earned his law degree from Georgia State University of Atlanta, where he graduated magna cum laude.
Hopson was assistant general counsel for the Atlanta school system and served as interim general counsel.
From there, he joined the law firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP, whose clients included the Clayton County, Ga., school system.
He became the Clayton County school district’s first in-house general counsel.
Hopson had been on the job for about seven months when the school district lost its accreditation after an investigation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools alleged unethical conduct by some board members.
The governor of Georgia removed four board members on the recommendation of a state judge.
What happened there was rare, just as the MCS charter surrender is unique. But Hopson said the difference in the two situations is the elected boards.
“We have a very good board. I know for years Memphis’ board had a reputation. … This is not the board people used to remember years ago, in terms of their training and their commitment to the vision and their role,” he said. “It wasn’t that way in Clayton County. I was there for seven or eight months and it started going downhill and I found out about the opening here.”
Hopson arrived back in Memphis in 2008 just days after the Memphis City Council voted to cut the city’s level of funding to the school system.
“I never in a million years would have thought the council would have actually cut the funding,” said Hopson, who had been following from Georgia reports of the political discussion in the weeks before the council made its decision. “Across the country, education is generally such a sacred cow and people always talk about it and never do it. I thought they’d never do it.”
The council decision ignited a set of lawsuits and litigation that still continue.
Winning a judgment of $57 million from a trial court and the state appeals court, Hopson and his staff were still seeking to collect on the amount in November when city school board members began discussing a charter surrender and consolidation with the Shelby County school system.
“It is such a fascinating blend of law and politics, particularly what is going on right now,” Hopson said. “When you’re trying to provide advice to nine people and some of them have different views, it’s always a challenge to make sure you give solid middle-of-the-road advice that allows the clients to explore their differences and also come to what they think is the best decision.”