A conversation with Gareth Pahowka, education lawyer at Stock and Leader

Gareth Pahowka brings a unique perspective to his work as a school lawyer. Before attending law school, he was a teacher.

After graduating from the teacher education program at Gettysburg College, Pahowka, now 32, taught seventh grade world cultures at Gettysburg Middle School for a year. But a career in law was on his mind.

When he realized he could blend his two career interests of education and law, he applied to law school. Pahowka graduated from Penn State’s Dickinson Law in Carlisle in 2010.

After stints at a couple of firms in the midstate and Philadelphia area during his education, he has worked since 2010 in the school law practice area at Stock and Leader, a firm in York. 

In January, Pahowka was named a partner at the firm, which employs close to 30 attorneys who practice in about five areas of law, Pahowka said.

What has kept you at Stock and Leader since 2010? What do you like about working there?

There’s a great culture at the firm. There’s lots of room for professional growth. I find [school law] very exciting and rewarding and interesting all the time. There’s a great team atmosphere. We work in practice areas, but we all work together and are multi-disciplinary on multiple issues. It’s just a good supportive atmosphere for family and work-life balance, so it’s kept me there, and it will hopefully keep me there for a long time.

What made you shift your focus in the field of education from teaching to practicing school law?

I enjoyed my time teaching. I was also interested in potentially exploring law school, and I had an internship while at Gettysburg College with an attorney in Philadelphia that really piqued my interest, and that’s why I started looking in that direction. Eventually I realized I could combine the two areas and work in education or school law and merge both into a career path. So far that’s worked out nicely.

Tell me about your family.

I have two boys. Paul is 3 ½, and my youngest, Alan, just turned 1, so we’re busy, chasing around little boys. I’ve been married to my wife Andrea since 2009. We met at Gettysburg, and she was an elementary teacher until our first son was born. We live in Mechanicsburg, and now she’s a full-time mom trying to keep up with our two boys.

I grew up in Pottstown in Montgomery County. I came to Gettysburg and met Andrea there, and we’ve stayed in Central PA ever since. We never really had any desire to go back to our hometowns … We were very happy to make this area our home.

What do you like about living and raising a family in Central Pennsylvania?

It really has all the ingredients to raise a happy, healthy family: great schools, natural beauty. It’s close to everything you could imagine, close to big cities, close to country. There’s lot of job opportunities for young graduates … The more we’ve learned about the area, the more confident we are that we made the right decision. So we’re staying put.

What does your job as a school lawyer entail?

We represent almost 20 school districts in Central Pa., and, like any large institution, they face threats from different areas and challenges of all kinds, whether it be budget-related or employment matters or student discipline situations. A big part of that is providing more proactive advice and counseling to them, so they can stay out of court. It’s never a dull moment. A lot happens behind the scenes of the school district that most folks are not aware of that we work with and resolve so they can continue to focus on the day-to-day of educating students. It keeps four or five of us [at Stock and Leader] pretty busy.

We do spend quite a bit of time in administrative hearings. Most of the time we are meeting with clients, attending school board meetings and providing more ongoing or proactive counseling. As I said, the goal is always to stay out of litigation if we can.

Does that set you and your team apart from other law firms, attending school board meetings and regularly meeting with your clients?

We do have a lot of face-time with our clients. Our group in particular really places a lot of emphasis on the proactive education counseling training for school administrators, and that gets us out of the office probably more than we’re in the office. We’re certainly not just a reactive group. We shouldn’t wait for something to happen. We kind of feel it’s our responsibility to keep up with changes in the law and educate our clients and provide training.

Ultimately the school board is our client. For many districts we represent – not all, but many – we do attend their meetings, and that provides an opportunity to stay connected with them and provide on-the-spot assistance. It just gives us an opportunity for an up-close and personal relationship that we wouldn’t get in the office just over the phone.

We really try to support our school districts. We do mock trial and law programs with the high school students.

In the past year or couple months, what is a major issue that has been of concern to your clients?

Since the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, all of our school districts have faced threats of one kind or another. It’s a very tense atmosphere right now, so we’ve seen a higher volume of student discipline matters and safety and security issues. The student walk-outs nationwide were also here in Central Pa., and almost all of our clients had some version of a student demonstration that day. So the theme of the last few weeks has been safety and security.

The student demonstrations involved First Amendment issues, so we can counsel school districts on balancing student free speech rights with the duty to maintain a safe environment. Almost every school safety issue comes back to a legal question, so we’ve been kind of immersed in that world for the past few weeks.

In what ways are you involved in the community outside of your job?

I have been a board member for Big Brothers Big Sisters of York & Adams Counties for quite some time. I’m currently the board chair for a few more months, so that’s been my main focus in the community. That’s been a rewarding, time-consuming task managing the board and trying to support the agency to keep us moving in the right direction. I’ve been connected to that agency going back to undergrad at Gettysburg when I first became a volunteer. I was matched with my “little brother” when he was in second grade, and he’s now a high school senior, so we’ve been together a long time.

I also volunteer at Central York High School and facilitate a law mentoring program for high school students who may be interested in a law career. The culminating thing is the mock trial, and the kids have a lot of fun doing that.

You were able to enter into an area of law that draws from your past experiences and interests. How were you able to position yourself that way, and how might other aspiring lawyers do the same?

Maybe I was a bit unusual. I went to law school knowing really what I wanted to do. Stock and Leader has, of course I’m biased but, the best school practice in Central Pa. … and fortunately they were looking the same time I was looking, and the rest is history. I only really interviewed for positions in that practice area, and there are very few firms that do it on any scale and do it well, in this area, anyway.

Becca Oken-Tatum
Becca Oken-Tatum is the web editor for the Central Penn Business Journal. She also coordinates and writes for CPBJ's monthly Young Professionals e-newsletter. Email her questions, comments and tips at btatum@cpbj.com.

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