How to Choose an Attorney for Your Child’s
Special Education Case
Sometimes having a child with a disability means that you will need to hire someone to assist you to get the educational services your child needs and deserves in order to receive his or her Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).
Attorneys can help assess whether you have a good case, what the issues would be in your case and how to best go about getting what your child needs.
Attorneys can represent you in court and in due process hearings. They are held accountable to follow strict rules of legal procedure and ethics in the states where the attorney is licensed.
Although attorneys can never guarantee a particular outcome or result, an experienced attorney should be able to give you a range of possible outcomes and help you weigh the advantages and disadvantages of your case.
Some attorneys who represent families with children who have disabilities may be in private practice or they may practice in a public service agency. Examples of such agencies are each state’s Protection and Advocacy agency, Legal Aid, Legal Clinic, or other similar organizations.
How to find a potential attorney: ask other parents and advocates in your local area about attorneys they have used. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc. (COPAA) also has an attorney locator available on its Web site at http://www.copaa.org/find/index.php.
Unfortunately, most states have a shortage of knowledgeable attorneys to represent families in special education cases, so finding an attorney who is suitable can be difficult because there may be only one to six in the entire state who focus on this area of practice. Likely you will have to look outside your town or county to find someone who regularly practices in this area of law.
Choosing which attorney will best suit your needs is difficult at times. Attorney styles, demeanor and personalities vary just as parents' styles do. It’s important to try to choose an attorney who is the most compatible with your personality and objectives.
Important things to consider in choosing an attorney:
The attorney's special education expertise and knowledge
The laws in special education cases can be complex. Although the training lawyers receive prepares them to deal effectively with legal complexities, law schools commonly do not teach specifically in regard to special education law.
Ask your attorney how many years he or she has been practicing in this area of law, how many cases he or she has handled in the past, how many due process hearings he or she has been to and whether he or she practices only in this area of law or primarily in other areas of law.
Do not be afraid to ask an attorney these questions. YOU are the client and the attorney works for you. Because you are the one making the hiring decision, you have a right to this information.
Special education lawyers often are parents of children with disabilities. They also might have gravitated toward this area of practice through a desire to make a difference, feel called to it by God or because they have a friend, neighbor or family member with a disability.
Don’t be shy about talking money
You have a right to know and fully understand what their rates are and how they will bill you for professional services. Most attorneys will not begin work without an agreement or contract. That contract should clearly spell out the attorney’s and client’s obligations.
Understanding your role as parents and clients
Parents play a vital role in every special education case. In fact, they are the decision makers. Lawyers cannot make decisions for you. They can give you legal advice and tell you what to expect. But you, as parent of the student, are responsible for making the decisions. You must decide whether to accept or reject an IEP, whether to settle your conflict with the school informally and what the terms of a settlement will be, and other such decisions. An attorney can give you advice and opinions based on that attorney's training and experience, but ultimately you make the final decisions about your child's case and programming.
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