The new year will bring a new name for a well-established Pittsburgh law firm.
Ira Weiss, whose name has become synonymous with "school district solicitor" in southwestern Pennsylvania, is renaming his Downtown firm to reflect the addition of two of the firm's longtime attorneys, Joceyln Kramer and Janet Burkardt, to the shingle.
Weiss Burkardt Kramer LLC will continue to handle matters related to school districts and other aspects of municipal government, and enhance the firm's "special counsel" assignments. Mr. Weiss is adamant that the firm not take on any clients, such as developers, whose interests could conflict with the interests of public school districts.
But he says this isn't a succession plan for his exit from the firm.
"I prefer to think of it as a transition plan," Mr. Weiss said. "I'm not planning to stop working any time soon."
Mr. Weiss, 65, started his law career with Lloyd Fuge, who specialized in municipal government. In 1979, he left Fuge & Weiss to form Goldman Weiss & Gross. From 1981 to 1992, he served as deputy Allegheny County solicitor. In 1991, he opened the Law Offices of Ira Weiss as the firm's only lawyer.
Mr. Weiss currently serves as solicitor for Pittsburgh Public Schools and as Special Counsel to the Allegheny County Controller's Office.
Ms. Burkardt, 59, has been with the firm since 2000. She came late to the practice of law, despite having several family members who are practicing attorneys.
"I had seen what lawyers do, and I knew it was not all that glamorous," Ms. Burkardt joked. Once she finally made the transition to law from her marketing career, she said she wanted something stable, and that was personally fulfilling. Working with school districts presents opportunities to collaborate that aren't readily available in other practice areas, she said.
"This is a way to help people, to be in public service that's very intriguing to me," Ms. Burkardt said. "You always have to keep in mind you are handling public money."
Ms. Kramer, 35,who joined Weiss' firm in 2003, has a focus on student services and special education issues, which she says can be a difficult practice area, even when she gets positive results.
"You definitely have to have the right personality for this kind of work," Ms. Kramer said. If there is a conflict with a family and a school district over special education concerns, even in a successful negotiation, the parties are dealing with extremely emotional issues.
Ms. Burkardt said going forward, the newly named firm plans more seminars around special education and other areas that districts struggle with, part of the collaborative efforts the firm prides itself on.
Mr. Weiss said in the four decades he's been practicing, the change from six-year terms to four-year terms for school board members has had one of the biggest impacts on his business.
"It created tremendous instability because every two years you have four or five people running for re-election. It created challenges for solicitors, because you need five people to hire you and keep you," Mr. Weiss said. "Sometimes you're the board's institutional memory."
And, even when giving sound advice, if a majority of the board doesn't like what its solicitor has to say, they'll sometimes blame the messenger, he noted.
Greg Miller, a shareholder with Buchanan Ingersoll, has worked with Mr. Weiss in his capacity as solicitor for the Pittsburgh Public School District. Mr. Miller said he has great respect for how deftly Mr. Weiss handles sensitive political concerns.
"He's a great advocate without ever having to pound on the table," Mr. Miller said. "He's effective in getting things done, and he earns people's respect, even people who disagree with him."
Another difference that has had a major impact on school boards, Mr. Weiss said, is the increasing openness of meetings; not only to reporters but to members of the public who also are filing requests for information under the Right to Know Act.
Adding two women named partners to the firm is reflective of the reality of school districts and other areas in government, Ms. Burkardt said. "There are more female superintendents and more female board members that really relate well to female solicitors," she said.
Kim Lyons: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1241