Special education attorneys are not as numerous as personal injury attorneys or family lawyers. And it's unlikely that attorneys working in more standard areas of law—such as wills and estates, criminal law, family matters, or corporation law—will know anything about special education law. Even many Social Security disability attorneys don't have experience in special education matters.
You may be tempted to hire the attorney who did your will, your sister-in-law who just graduated from law school, or the attorney whose ad in the phone book promises the lowest rates. But special education law is highly specialized. Hiring an attorney who does not know the law or have experience in special education will significantly increase your chance of failure and can ultimately cost you more rather than less. When you pay an attorney, you are paying for all the time spent on your case, including time spent on research. You don’t want to pay an attorney for on-the-job training, nor do you want to hire an attorney who won’t be able to master the subject matter and legal issues quickly enough to serve you and your child well.
Excerpted From The Complete IEP Guide
Help your special education student get his educational needs met.
Ways to Find a Special Education Attorney
To find the “right” education lawyer, you’ll need to compile a list of potential candidates. Here’s how:
- Ask other parents in the school district.
- If you are working with or know learning disability specialists, ask them.
- Ask school district personnel—the district is required to maintain a list of special education attorneys and other advocacy resources for parents.
- Ask your pediatrician or other health care professionals.
- Contact your state special education advisory commission. IDEA requires each state to have a special education commission, composed of educators and parents, which advises the state about special education. The commissioners should have numerous special education contacts.
- Contact your state department of education and ask for referrals.
- Contact a nearby Parent Training and Information Center (PTI).
- Contact a local disability rights advocacy organization.
- Contact a low-cost or free legal clinic, such as legal aid—while most offices focus on common civil issues (such as domestic disputes or evictions), some offices do special education work for low-income people.
Call the Prospective Attorneys You Found
Once you have a list of recommended attorneys, you can either narrow it down to one or two individuals who were enthusiastically recommended or make initial contact with everyone on your list.
Try to have a brief phone conversation or ask for a short meeting. Some attorneys will briefly chat with you over the phone to determine the nature of your case and whether or not you need an attorney. Other attorneys may have you speak with an assistant, complete a form describing your case, or make an appointment to come in and talk about the case. Some attorneys will not talk to you without at least a minor retainer or fee; others will not charge for the first discussion. Before making an appointment, find out the following information:
- the attorney’s fee
- how the attorney will review the case and decide whether or not you should proceed
- how much the initial review costs, and
- whether you can talk briefly to decide if it’s worth sending in a retainer. (If your case is complicated, this might not be an option—you can’t expect an attorney to listen to an hour-long explanation of your child’s situation during an initial screening call.)
Meet With the Best Candidates
Make an appointment with the candidates who seem like the best prospects. Naturally, if there is a fee for the initial intake, you may only want to see one or two attorneys. Be sure to ask what records the attorney needs to evaluate your case.
When you meet with an attorney, you should ask about your specific case, of course. You should also ask about the attorney’s:
- years of experience
- specific experience with special education and learning disabilities
- experience with your particular legal issue (such as a due process hearing)
- knowledge of special education law and the IEP process (or Section 504 complaints, if relevant)
- experience with your school district
- general style—is the attorney confrontational or cooperative (for example, does the attorney like mediation or think it’s a waste of time?)
- references (you may ask for references when you first call), and
Does the attorney clearly answer your questions about fees, experience, and your specific legal issues? Does the attorney objectively assess your chances in due process? If the lawyer makes you uncomfortable, think carefully about whether the lawyer’s expertise and success rate are worth putting up with a difficult style.
Will the attorney provide the type of help you want? Is the attorney willing to advise you now, but hold off on full participation unless and until you need it? If the attorney wants to take over the case but you only want a consultant, you have the wrong attorney.
Will the attorney be accessible? This is important: The most common complaint about lawyers is that they don’t return phone calls, respond to faxes or email, or make themselves available when a client calls. Discuss the attorney’s response time. While no attorney should be expected to respond instantly, you shouldn’t have to wait more than a day or two, except in rare circumstances.
Ask for a Case Evaluation
A good attorney will evaluate your evidence before giving you any advice. After reviewing your case materials, a good special education attorney should be able to:
- tell you the strength of your case
- explain the process
- evaluate your documents and potential witnesses
- tell you if additional supportive material is needed
- estimate the cost of hiring an attorney for due process or beyond
- estimate how long your case may take
- provide insights into school district personnel, particularly if the attorney has worked with the district before, and
- provide a cost-benefit analysis of hiring the attorney to represent you versus using the attorney as an adviser only.