One question I am frequently asked by parents is whether they should hire a special education advocate or hire a special education attorney. The short answer is … it depends. As a starting point it may be useful to quickly summarize some of the similarities and differences between advocates and attorneys:
Special education advocates are usually non-lawyers who have experience navigating the ins and outs of the special education process. Many, though not all, education advocates have “learned the ropes” of special education by advocating for their own children, and/or by attending trainings offered by various advocacy organizations. Most education advocates will be able to review student records, help families navigate the special education process, and can advocate on a family’s behalf at Team meetings.
Special education attorneys often provide many of the same services that education advocates offer such as reviewing student records and helping families to understand the special education process. However, attorneys should also be able to evaluate a family’s legal case under a variety of different laws (include tort and civil rights laws), draft contracts, as well as represent clients at mediations, due process hearings, and in court. Some special education attorneys routinely accompany families to Team meetings, but others do not.
So, do you need an education advocate or an attorney? The answer will depend on what you are looking for, and how likely it is that the Team process alone will produce the outcome you want. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Take advantage of free consultations. Many education advocates and attorneys will speak with potential clients for free during a short initial consultation. You should (hopefully) get a good sense after speaking with a few different advocates and attorneys whether you need an advocate or an attorney given the unique circumstances of your child’s case.
- Does it make sense to begin working with an advocate, and then switch over to an attorney if need be? For some families it is more cost effective to initially work with an education advocate, and to hire an attorney only if it becomes apparent that a dispute cannot be resolved through the Team process.
- On the other hand, if you know your case is not likely to be resolved through the Team process (e.g., there is a serious dispute about eligibility, placement, services, or other legal issues involved such as bullying or abuse) and you are ready to try and formally resolve your dispute with your school district, you may find it more cost effective to work with an attorney from the start.
- When hiring a lawyer, it is always a good idea to hire an experienced special education attorney. Special education law is quite nuanced, and it is easy for a lawyer to make mistakes if they are not familiar with the relevant laws and regulations.
- There currently is no official license or professional certification process for special education advocates. Therefore, when hiring an education advocate, it is a good idea to get a sense of how experienced the individual is and whether they have attended any training offered by organizations such as the Federation for Children with Special Needs and Special Needs Advocacy Network of Massachusetts.
There are a number of excellent special education advocates and attorneys in Massachusetts, and each type of professional plays an important role in helping children access the educations to which they are entitled. If you would like to discuss your case, and whether it makes sense to hire an attorney or an advocate, please feel free to contact me.