If you have a child in special education and everything seems to be running smoothly, you may never need a lawyer. However, it's quite possible that at some point during your child's education, it will make sense to hire, or at least consult with, an attorney to help you advocate for your child. Some parents end up hiring a lawyer when the school district refuses to provide requested services under an individualized education program (IEP). (For a general overview of special education and the IEP process, read our article on special education law.)
When You Might Need a Special Education Lawyer
Here are some factors to consider when trying to decide whether you need a lawyer who specializes in special education.
- Complexity of the case. The more complicated your case is, the more likely it is that you could benefit from some legal advice. A dispute involving complicated placement and services issues, for example, might require the special knowledge and experience of an attorney.
- Strength of your case. If you really don't know whether you have a good case against the school district, consider talking to a lawyer. A good attorney should tell you how strong your case looks before you have to make a decision about whether to hire the lawyer.
- Your time and energy. If you work full time, are a single parent, or have a difficult schedule, you may want someone else to take charge. On the other hand, if you have the time and energy to represent yourself and your child, hiring an attorney may not be necessary.
- Your budget. Attorneys aren't cheap, and the expense may limit your ability to hire a lawyer.
- Your self-confidence. We think that most parents can be great advocates for their children in special education. However, if you doubt your ability to effectively advocate or negotiate, you may prefer to hire a lawyer rather than wage the fight on your own.
- Who represents the school district. If the school district has an attorney, you may want the same protection and leverage.
- Your relationship with the district. Hiring a lawyer may change your relationship with the school district. When you involve attorneys, the atmosphere becomes more formal and potentially combative. School personnel will likely be more guarded and may view you as a troublemaker or a squeaky wheel. Of course, if you are at the point where you are considering hiring an attorney, your relationship with the school district has already changed. And your child's welfare is more important than a cordial relationship with the school district.
How a Special Education Lawyer Can Help
Generally speaking, an attorney can help you in one of two ways. A lawyer can provide advice and assistance as needed throughout the IEP process while you do most of the work, or a lawyer can be directly involved as your formal representative. You might choose to have a lawyer do everything from beginning to end in the IEP process, or you may have the lawyer handle only certain tasks.
Here are some of the specific tasks a lawyer can help you with:
- securing your child's school files
- requesting an evaluation or an IEP meeting
- preparing for the IEP eligibility meeting
- preparing for the IEP program meeting—including drafting parts of the IEP and suggesting what material will be most effective
- attending an IEP meeting
- reviewing evaluations and IEP forms before you sign them
- researching a specific legal issue that applies to your situation
- helping you informally resolve a dispute with the school district
- assessing the strength of your case, if you're considering filing a complaint
- preparing for and attending hearings
- writing post-hearing briefs
- preparing a complaint for you to file with the appropriate educational agency, and
- representing you in court.
For information on how to find a lawyer and choose a special education attorney, see our article on finding an education lawyer. And for information on how special education lawyers are paid (including when the school district is required to pay your legal fees), read The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child, by Lawrence Siegel (Nolo).