Parents of children with special needs are sometimes faced with the difficult task of hiring an attorney to challenge a school district’s assessment of their child’s academic abilities and, ultimately, to obtain the educational services that are being denied. This can be a frustrating and emotional time for parents, but if you have clear guidelines for choosing the best attorney for your situation, the process will be much easier.
To ensure that you have covered the most important points, both practical and personal, ask the following questions when making your decision:
What is the level of the attorney’s expertise in education law and, specifically, special education law?
Beyond the appropriate accreditation and licensing, it is critical for your attorney to have extensive experience in special education law. This area of the law is extremely specialized and a good lawyer should be completely versed in federal and state laws and regulations regarding children with disabilities and your child’s rights. In addition, since the law changes frequently, your attorney must be aware of all current court decisions.
Are you comfortable discussing the details of your child’s situation with the attorney?
The attorney you choose to represent your child must understand your situation and inspire confidence. The most effective special education attorneys are usually people who have been affected personally by a child with special needs – their own child or a child who is close to them. Comfort level can be difficult to measure, but it is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing an advocate for your child.
Does the attorney understand how school districts work and does he/she have experience working with educators and school administrators?
A thorough understanding of how school districts operate, who the key decision-makers are, and the factors that go into providing or denying services is crucial for a special education attorney. A good attorney will understand the evaluation process, how an IEP is created, and the effectiveness of the most commonly recommended educational options, such as collaborative classrooms and pull-out programs.
Does the attorney work with leading outside education experts who will help with your case?
To validate your position, a good attorney will usually call on the expertise of outside educational experts who will strengthen your case with sound professional opinions. An independent medical, psychological, or educational assessment by a well-credentialed professional can be very influential in convincing school administrators that a child’s needs are not being met.
What are the costs for retaining a special education attorney?
Be sure you understand how the attorney expects to be compensated. Costs will vary depending on the complexity and timeframe of the case. You will be asked to sign an agreement, which should include a fee structure and detailed description of the attorney’s services. You will either be charged an hourly rate or a flat fee and you will be charged for the initial consultation, which can be either over the phone or in person. Keep in mind that school districts are required to pay your legal costs if you win your case. Discuss this with the attorney and find out if you should pursue this option.
Does the attorney work with support staff?
It is best to work with an attorney who employs legal assistants or paralegals who will do research and paperwork that does not have to be done by an attorney. This will streamline the process and make it more cost-efficient. If your attorney has to attend to every detail, it will be reflected in your bill and the process will be unnecessarily extended.
Selecting a special education attorney to advocate for a child is an important decision. The attorney you choose should be someone who is experienced in both education law and dealing with school districts, understands the needs of children with disabilities, and is someone you trust. The basic guidelines outlined here will help you make the right choice.
Bradley L. Gerstman is Co-Founding Partner of Gotham Government Relations and the law firm of Gerstman Schwartz in Roslyn, NY. In his role as attorney, Mr. Gerstman focuses on special education legal issues.