On January 1, 1980, Sam Harben and Phil Hartley formed the Gainesville, Georgia, law firm of Harben & Hartley. At the time, they represented three local boards of education in Georgia, but their interest in public education and in the representation of local boards of education was a motivating factor in the decision to form the firm and soon became the focus of the firm’s practice. At the same time, educators and boards of education were facing many new challenges from Congress, state legislatures and the courts. In Georgia, teachers were granted a new set of rights under the Fair Dismissal Act. In Washington, Congress passed a new law setting forth an elaborate process to individualize instruction for certain disabled students and many civil rights statutes creating protection based on race, gender, national origin, religion, age and disability. Courts, at the state and federal level, were more and more frequently called upon as an arbiter of student or employee or citizen rights.
With its interest in public education, the firm eventually limited its practice exclusively to the representation of public educational entities in the state of Georgia. In April, 2008, the firm expanded and became Harben, Hartley & Hawkins. It has grown to a total staff of 14, including 9 lawyers. It presently provides legal advice to more than two-thirds of the public school districts throughout the state. The firm also serves as general counsel to the Georgia School Boards Association and has a close, advisory relationship with the Georgia School Superintendents Association and Georgia Association of Educational Leaders.
As members of the National Council of School Attorneys, the Georgia Council of School Attorneys and the Education Law Section of the State Bar, the firm stays current on all legal issues at the national and state level. Members of the firm frequently make presentations at educational conferences throughout the state and nation. Sam Harben and Phil Hartley coauthored a book entitled A Guide to School Law in Georgia published by the Georgia School Boards Association that now is maintained by the firm and available online as eLaw through GSBA.
Characterizing its practice as a “general practice for a specialized clientele,” the firm provides legal advice and expertise to handle any and all needs of a school district, including fair dismissal personnel issues, allegations of employment discrimination and EEOC complaints, other personnel disputes, student discipline issues, student tribunal hearings, civil rights claims, personal injury actions, federal and state constitutional claims and other litigation, special education and other legal issues involving disabled students, contracts, leases and other business needs, policy and rule development, construction disputes, bond and SPLOST issues and other financial matters.