Monthly Feature: Get to Know... Bethany Centrone

June 1, 2020

For many undergraduates, college can be a process of elimination. We sample, dabble and, in the event of a stumble, we change course. It was along just such a circuitous path that Bethany Centrone found her way to the law in general and school law in particular.

A native of Clyde, New York, between Rochester and Syracuse, Bethany matriculated at the University of Rochester as an environmental studies major. The required science and math classes failed to spark joy. But the philosophy electives, whose titles and descriptions she couldn’t resist, struck a nerve.

The philosophy of law, of government, of meta ethics. They all orbited around a core of reason, logic and argument. Bethany was fascinated – and had found her minor.

Also as an undergrad, Bethany interned at the New York State Division of Human Rights, where she was able to shadow investigators as they looked into complaints and conducted interviews. Many of the investigators, as it happened, were lawyers. Seed, meet soil.

After graduation, her only real plan was to continue her education and find something she could enjoy and master.

“Law school seemed to fit my competencies,” she said. “My father once told me I’d be a good lawyer because I liked to argue.” She earned a certificate of concentration in advocacy from Cornell Law and was hired at Harter, Secrest & Emery and assigned to the labor and employment practice group. Bethany says the assignment turned out to be “much better for me than litigation,” which she would have selected if given a choice.

She worked alongside (and studiously observed) now-retired partner Ronald J. Mendrick, who represented school districts, including her childhood alma mater. And another tumbler fell into place.

“I really, really liked school law,” says Bethany, who now co-chairs Bond’s school law practice. “Life is so random.”

“I like it because it’s accessible – complicated and accessible at the same time,” she says. “Yes, you have to know the laws and there are things you have to decipher and know in terms of regulations and status requirements. But we all went to school. It’s an area of the law you can wrap your arms around conceptually.”

Representing schools also gives a sense of serving the greater good.

“It’s not just business,” she says. “It’s one of the most important things that we can do as a society – educate our children. I like that I’m a part of that. And I love the clients. Educators are great to work with. They’re solution driven and their focus is to do what’s best for children.” 

When the opportunity arose to try on a new hat, by serving as in-house counsel for the 29,000-student Rochester City School District (RCSD), she couldn’t pass it up.

In Rochester, she handled all labor and employment matters that reached the legal department and advised on policy and compliance matters. After less than two years, she encountered another fork in her corkscrew career road: the chance to serve RCSD as chief of human capital resources (i.e., a non-lawyer job).

“I was an administrator, I wasn’t a lawyer,” Bethany says. Instead, she supervised human resources, labor relations, employee benefits, risk management and professional development.
“I never worked harder in my life,” she says. “I loved it.”

Looking back, she can see how that insider perspective would later enrich her ability to advise a multitude of school districts. 

“Serving as in-house counsel was a step into understanding what it’s like to be in an organization, but as an administrator, you’re part of trying to make that organization better and make it work and making decisions, rather than just telling people what to do. It really is a big difference.” she says. 

That job “gave me a lot more empathy and grounding for talking to clients about the practical things they need to address,” she says. “A lot of my advice is less about legalities and more about explaining how you do something the law says you need to do. I try to make sure that I give all of the possible options and all of the things I can think about that might go wrong … all the things that go along with being in a school district.”

Lately, she spends most of her time helping clients navigate the uneven terrain of COVID-19.

“I’m glad I can be there for them, even if it’s just to let them vent,” she says. “To make them feel as comfortable and calm as they can and to give them practical advice. Tell them, ‘You’re not alone, we’re all doing the best we can, take baby steps. This is what you have to do based on what we know today. Worry about the what-ifs tomorrow.”

On a personal level, the pandemic upended the travel plans she and her husband were looking forward to. So instead of exploring the Tuscan countryside, they’ve been remodeling bathrooms, finishing the attic and trying not to annoy Cookie, the sharpei-border collie mix who’s unaccustomed to their constant presence at home.