Expert says PPS lawyer's lack of license is a problem
An expert in professional conduct for lawyers says the fact that Portland Public Schools' new general counsel, Jim Harris, lacks a license to practice in Oregon is a problem that likely violates state ethics rules.
"It's pretty simple," Lucian Pera, a nationally recognized expert on legal ethics, tells the Portland Tribune. "You've got to be recognized by a jurisdiction somehow before you can act as a lawyer."
Harris, who started work with PPS on June 15, is authorized to work as a lawyer in Pennsylvania. He previously served as general counsel to the Pittsburgh housing authority. But Harris, through a PPS spokesman, says he didn't submit an application to be admitted to the Oregon Bar until around Sept. 1. The Oregon Bar has not processed the application, and now it's investigating whether Harris unlawfully practiced law for months as PPS's general counsel.
While unlicensed, Harris appeared in Multnomah County Circuit Court alongside outside lawyers for PPS as the district's general counsel, and PPS's website has listed him in that position as well.
Harris's lack of a license came to light Monday, Nov. 20 after Harris submitted a letter of resignation to Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. The Oregonian first reported on Tuesday, Nov. 21 the failure by Harris and the district to secure his law license. The Oregon Bar discovered the issue after a parent made a complaint about Harris that wasn't substantiated. The organization then sent a letter to Harris on Nov. 9. A spokeswoman for the statewide group, Kateri Walsh, declined to comment on the issue on Wednesday Nov. 22 because of the investigation.
In a written statement the same day, a spokesman for the district defended Harris. "Jim Harris has a pristine record from his legal career, and he has always operated at PPS with the highest degree of integrity," wrote Dave Northfield, the spokesman.
Northfield argued that Oregon law allowed someone seeking reciprocity to practice in the state temporarily. In an interview later on Wednesday, Harris echoed Northfield's statements, saying he did nothing wrong because he put conditions on himself, including appearing in court only with other licensed Oregon lawyers. Harris, who said he resigned to take another job in the public sector outside of Oregon, said he expected the Oregon Bar to clear him. "The issue will be resolved immediately," he said, declining to name his new employer because the terms of his new job hadn't been finalized.
Pera, the national expert based in Tennessee, said the Oregon Bar would likely question whether Harris was practicing "temporarily." He moved here, had an office with Portland Public Schools, sat at the table for lawyers representing PPS in Multnomah County Circuit Court this summer and offered legal advice to members of the school board.
"A number of jurisdictions would not consider that temporary," said Pera.