CMS attorney seeks extension

A year after Regina Bartholomew was hired from New Orleans as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' attorney, she's asking the school board to let her wait until February to earn her license to practice in North Carolina.

Because she hasn't taken the state bar exam, she can't comply with her contract, which requires her to be licensed by September or face firing. The two-day July exam ended Thursday, and the next chance will be in February.

The board expects to vote in August on giving her an extension, as well as on her performance bonus.

Lawyers who aren't licensed in North Carolina can't work trials, but it's legal – and fairly common – for them to serve as in-house corporate counsel, state and local bar officials say. CMS has other staff attorneys and lawyers on contract to do the work that requires an N.C. license.

“I don't think it's hindering my ability at all to do my duties,” said Bartholomew, who is still licensed to practice in Louisiana.

Bartholomew said her studies were sidetracked by the departure of CMS's associate general counsel soon after Bartholomew began the Charlotte job last July. That staff attorney was eventually replaced by two lawyers in the spring, but Bartholomew said she lost time needed to study for the bar.

School board members say they want Bartholomew to get the N.C. license. Because they've been discussing the extension in closed session – N.C. law allows personnel matters to be kept private – they declined to go into detail about the timing.

“The big deal is that it's got to get done,” Chairman Joe White said Friday.

Bartholomew, who makes $140,000 a year and is eligible for up to $14,000 in an annual performance bonus, is the only CMS employee besides Superintendent Peter Gorman hired directly by the school board.

The previous full-time lead attorney, Maurice Green, left that job in July 2006, when Gorman tapped him to be his second-in-command. The board hired Bartholomew after a yearlong search that included debate over whether CMS needs the job. She had been general counsel to the Orleans Parish School Board from 2004 to 2006, moving into commercial litigation with a private firm.

“Should we have hired someone that had a license in North Carolina? Absolutely,” said board member Kaye McGarry, who said she remains unconvinced of the need for an in-house lawyer.

Early in Bartholomew's tenure, board member Trent Merchant chided her in a public meeting for her hesitance in answering a legal question about a board dispute. You need to know the law and give confident answers, he told her.

Merchant said this week he believes Bartholomew has “made strides.”

“I think she probably got off to a difficult start but has been a valuable member of the team,” he said.

Charlotte City Council member John Lassiter, who is president of the Mecklenburg County Bar, said several large corporations, including Wachovia and Bank of America, have hired attorneys who are licensed in other states. Sometimes they're eventually required to earn an N.C. license, he said. “Over time there's more reason for someone to become licensed here.”

Lassiter, who spent 11 years on the school board, said it's important for the district's top lawyer to know N.C. law because public education is heavily regulated by the state.