A lot of my potential clients really don't need a special education attorney and I'm not reluctant to tell them. Does that make me a bad business person? I don't think so. Clients who aren't ready for legal representation are more likely to be unhappy with the experience.
So what are indicators you aren't ready to hire an education attorney?
(1) You've haven't considered working with an advocate.
If you need help navigating the special education process, you should first consider hiring an educational advocate. Not only are advocates usually less expensive than attorneys, working with an advocate can provide you with the support you need while maintaining a more collaborative approach with the school district. Advocates spend more time at IEP meetings and with school officials than attorneys, and often have a better sense of the underlying institutional dynamics within your district. Some advocates specialize in particular types of disabilities. If you've tried working with an advocate before and you weren't happy with the quality of representation, consider working with a more effective and experienced advocate instead of immediately thinking you need an attorney.
(2) You want to scare the school :
If your reason for hiring an attorney is simply to scare the school district, you will probably be disappointed. Special education law is about advocating for your child's needs. If you and the school district disagree about your child's needs, there are mechanisms in place (settlement, mediation, due process hearings) for dispute resolution. A special education attorney can help you with this. If you don't have a dispute about your child's needs or don't want a resolution, you should not hire a special education attorney.
(3) You don't know what your child needs.
You shouldn't hire an attorney to assess your child's needs. Most attorneys are not educators or learning specialists. They cannot evaluate your child nor can they recommend educational supports, services, or placement. Even if they could, no hearing officer and judge would give the attorney's educational recommendations any weight because attorneys are considered inherently biased. A qualified special education attorney can refer you to professionals who can help assess your child's learning profile and help you understand, from a legal perspective, how to find credible, effective experts. An attorney can also help you request additional testing from the school district. But here's the truth - a good educational advocate can often help you navigate the assessment process, and can do so at a fraction of the cost.
(4) You're the only one who knows what your child needs:
Remember how your attorney is considered inherently biased and therefore can't make educational recommendations? As the parent you're considered even more biased than the attorney! If you believe your child needs a specific support, program or service, you need to prove why with expert advice and/or peer reviewed research.
(5) You don't know what you want.
Maybe the school district has proposed an in-district program and the independent evaluator has recommended an out-of-district placement. You are unsure which placement is appropriate so you contact an attorney. This is an important decision, but not one an attorney should make for you. Remember, your attorney is not an expert in determining your child's needs. That said, an attorney can be extremely helpful in explaining the legal implications of each option, which will help you make an informed decision.
Once you are ready to hire a special education attorney, it's important to choose the right one. Find my advice on that process here.
Still not sure what to do? Feel free to contact The Law Office of Lillian E. Wong for initial consultation.