A parent who has a child with a disability does not necessarily need to hire an education lawyer to help protect the child’s rights. If school authorities respond appropriately to their needs, you should be able to handle IEPs and other parts of the special education process on your own. On the other hand, if you expect or encounter resistance, you may want to consider consulting an attorney. Even if you do not retain the attorney to advocate for you, they can advise you on the strength of your position and alert you to options that you may not have found on your own.
An education lawyer may be especially useful if your child’s case is complex or if you have limited time to devote to it. Sometimes a parent may feel the need to hire an attorney to level the playing field if the school district will have an attorney representing them. Bringing an attorney into the discussion may undermine a parent’s relationship with the school district, but this may be a worthwhile risk if the relationship is already shaky or hostile. Your child’s ability to receive an appropriate education should be the priority, and you should feel free to pursue an attorney within your budget if it would further that goal.
The Role of a Lawyer in the IEP Process
You can decide whether you want your lawyer to advocate for you directly with the school district or whether you would prefer them to provide more distant assistance, such as counseling you on potential strategies. If the lawyer takes a relatively active role, they can help you establish your child’s eligibility for an IEP under federal law, prepare for the IEP meeting, and attend the IEP meeting with you. Sometimes a lawyer can work with school administrators in drafting a child’s IEP. They can also help a client navigate more specific disputes with the school.
If a lawyer does not get directly involved in the IEP process, they can review documents before you sign them to make sure that you are not waiving any rights of which you are unaware. They can research the nuances of a specific issue that may arise in your case, and they can discuss the laws that support your position, as well as the legal obstacles that you may face. If you feel that the school district is not properly respecting your child’s rights, you can ask the lawyer to help you prepare and file a complaint. In the rare event that you need to go to court to resolve a dispute, you probably should retain a lawyer to submit the necessary documents to the court and represent you in any hearings or appeals that may be needed.
Choosing an Education Lawyer
You should make sure to find a lawyer who has handled special education cases before. This area of law is distinctive and nuanced, so you should not take the risk of assuming that a lawyer can learn about it well enough to effectively represent your child’s interests. You can ask for referrals from other parents in your school district, as well as any of the doctors, therapists, or medical specialists who have treated your child. More generally, the state department of education and the state special education advisory commission should be able to provide you with a list of referrals, although they do not provide a guarantee of quality. The school district also should provide you with a list of attorneys upon request. Another strategy might involve consulting non-profit organizations in the area of disability rights. If paying for a lawyer is an issue, you can contact a local legal clinic or legal aid organization, which may have a lawyer on staff to handle these cases. However, some non-profit organizations may limit their resources to cases that will have a significant impact on this area of law.
Some attorneys offer a free consultation, while others require a small fee. If your budget permits, you should talk to a handful of attorneys who stand out from your initial research to find out whether they would be a good fit. You should bring the key documents involving your child to each attorney so that they can review them in deciding whether to take the case. The attorney should provide you with a case evaluation, including the likely cost and duration of the case, the steps that you will need to take to reach your goals, and your probability of success. They can advise you on whether you will need additional documents or witnesses, and they can discuss the pros and cons of hiring them for representation or only advice.
Meanwhile, you can ask the attorney about their experience in education law and past cases that they have handled that are similar to yours. You can find out whether they have advocated for other parents in your specific school or school district. Choosing an attorney ultimately is a personal decision. You should work with an attorney with whom you feel comfortable and with whom you can talk candidly. Your attorney should be responsive to your concerns and show compassion for your needs. If you have certain expectations about communications or the way in which the case will be handled, you should make sure to discuss them with a prospective attorney before hiring them.