Folks often get work-related emails and letters from me in the evenings, weekends, even holidays, and they ask, “Don’t you ever rest?” Sure, I do.
But I love what I do so much that it truly doesn’t FEEL like work. It’s a calling, not a job. I couldn’t possibly treat it as a 9-5 job because it’s not.
I love representing families who have children with disabilities and strongly suspect I’ll be doing this till the day I die, long after many of my peers have retired from jobs that they merely tolerated in exchange for a paycheck.
I am often asked how I got into this area of law. My short answer is "It’s a God thing. I’m not smart enough to have figured all this out for myself."
The longer version is that I was called by forces more powerful than myself to this area of practice via a series of events.
By way of background, I was a journalist for 13 years prior to my practice of law.
I had been practicing law for only about a month when I got a call from Don Murphy, an attorney for the Indiana Public Defender Council. He and the Indiana Protection & Advocacy Service’s Milo Gray and Gary Ricks were looking to recruit new attorneys into special education practice to represent parents, as there were too few attorneys doing that in Indiana.
They were offering a free Continuing Legal Education (CLE) course on special education law and wanted to know if I was interested.
Being an attorney in private practice, just getting started, my calendar wasn’t exactly jammed full of commitments. I would have been open to just about any day that they proposed, and I agreed to attend the workshop.
(Notably, since that time, no one has ever called me and tried to recruit me to a specific area of law nor called to offer me free CLE hours.)
About a week later (before I had actually attended the CLE course), I got a call from a parent of a child with autism who was going to go to a special education due process hearing and said she wanted me to represent her family.
I told her that not only was I a new attorney but that I knew absolutely nothing about special education law. Not realizing that there was a shortage of attorneys representing parents in this area of law, I advised her to find someone who already knew about special education law. She said, “No. You’re exactly what I want.” I thought she was off her rocker if she thought it would be wise to hire someone as clueless as me, but she later explained. Then it all made sense.
The background: She had called an attorney in New York whose practice is devoted solely to representing children with autism. She had tried to get him to take her case. At first, he said no. He was already too busy, and no way was he coming to Indiana for her case.
She can be tenacious, and she kept working on him, and he finally told her to go find a brand-new attorney (one he could direct without resistance) and that he would be the brains of the case, and the new attorney would be local counsel.
So, she called the bar association and got the names of six brand-new attorneys. Mine was one of the names.
When she talked to the other five, they all said without hesitation that they would take her case, not mentioning what she already knew, that they were new to the practice of law entirely and didn’t have any experience in special education law in particular.
She appreciated the fact that I was honest with her about not only being a new attorney but also not knowing anything about special education law.
So, on the first morning of hearing, the child’s “team” gathered in a circle and said a prayer for a good outcome. The mother also gave me a wrapped gift that she said I couldn’t open until after the hearing was done.
We went to the first day of hearing.
Although I had done all I could to be “ready” for this hearing, I was so ignorant of my lack of knowledge that I didn’t even realize at the time how ignorant I was.
The first day of hearing, I put on my opening argument and the parent as my first witness. Then we broke for lunch.
When we came back from lunch, the school’s attorney said he wanted to settle the case and agreed to give the mom the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program that she had assembled for her child, would pay for the team already employed by the mom, reimburse her for past expenses of the program and pay the parent’s attorney fees.
It’s important to note that, even though I’ve now had several years of experience in this area of law, since that time I haven’t had even one case ABA case settle in the middle of a due process hearing with the school agreeing to give the child an ABA program, which costs about $60,000 a year.
I think God knew that I would need that sort of good outcome to want to do another case. If we had gone all the way through the hearing and lost, I’d probably still be doing other areas of law today.
I cannot express in words the sheer and absolute JOY that I felt that day using the law to do some real good for a child with autism.
Honestly, I cannot remember a happier day in my entire life before or since then and I’ve had a lot of happy days. I have likened it to the elation a football player must feel in winning the Super Bowl.
When I got home, I unloaded the hearing materials from my car and found the gift that the parent had given me but had asked me not to open until later.
I opened it. Inside was a plaque that I still have in my office to this day. It said:
One Hundred Years from now
It will not matter
what kind of car I drove,
What kind of house I lived in,
how much money was in my bank account
nor what my clothes looked like.
But the world may be a better place because
I was important in the life of a child.
(excerpt from "Within My Power" by Forest Witcraft).
After doing that case and realizing that there was no attorney in Indiana whose practice was devoted to representing children with disabilities, I decided to actively pursue special education law as my primary area of practice.
Over time, the other areas of law that I did fell away, as my time commitment to representing children with disabilities increased.
Today my practice is devoted solely to this area of law, and I’ve recruited a couple of other wonderful, talented Indiana attorneys to this area of law to represent parents as well. The need out there is huge, and I cannot do it all by myself.
As you can see, the series of events that occurred here could not have been devised by me but by Someone with a master plan for my life and for others as well.
That’s the story of how I became a parent-side special education attorney.
It hasn’t always been easy or the path of least resistance. I know that there are people out there who wish I weren’t practicing law at all, who wish I would simply “go away” or wish I were still doing divorces and bankruptcies.
However, I know in my heart that I was called to this area of law by God, and I accept that there will be conflicts with others as a result.
I am reminded of this quote:
"Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation or social standards never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest are willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathies with despised ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences."
-- Susan B. Anthony, American civil rights leader, 1820-1906
With God’s help, I’m ready, willing and able to do all in my power to improve the position of families who have children with disabilities by helping to enforce their state and federal civil rights, even when that mission is at times unpopular with certain individuals and entities.
-- Dorene Philpot
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