Cost of IEP Advocates/Attorneys

Your child is struggling. As a mom, you’re stressed and you’re frustrated. You want to hire an IEP advocate. Everyone keeps telling you “get a lawyer!”

But, you’ve heard that they are expensive. How do you know? What do you do? What if you cannot afford a Special Education Attorney or Advocate?

afford iep special education advocates attorney

Please note: This post has evolved over the years and now is broken down into 3 parts.

How much do Special Education Advocates charge?

Ok, so the meat and potatoes of this post. The answers you came for.

Fact is, it can be just about anything. Some states have a decent amount of agencies that offer free assistance. And some areas, particularly large metropolitan areas, have advocates who charge more than some attorneys. Plus everything in between.

I know that may not be helpful, but it’s the truth.

Some areas have support groups set up and “parent buddy” programs. It’s more about morale and support, though ideally your mentor should have more knowledge than you. Those programs can be free or just a minimal fee to belong to the group.

Some advocates charge $200-$300 hour or more. And everything in between. When you first hear an hourly fee, I would ask the advocate how that time is going to be tracked, and, about how many hours she expects your child will need.

And, the free advocates have a reputation for being, uh, not so great. But I worked as a free advocate. I was paid by an agency. So did Blake, Michelle and Jenny (from the Facebook group). And we’re all damn good advocates.

The key to being successful at this whole IEP thing is how big your tribe is. You have to be excellent at working with other parents, sharing information. Even social introverts like me have had to overcome shyness and speak up. You can find good advocates at a good price.

At doctor appointments and therapy sessions, talk to those other moms in the waiting rooms. That’s where some of the best resources are found: networking with other parents.

Thoughts on Hiring an IEP Advocate or Attorney.

If you will indulge me for a moment, and let me add a little op-ed in here about hiring an advocate. Because I have been through this conversation 100s of times.

The “Well, we really wanted to hire an advocate, we just cannot afford it right now.”

When you hire a good advocate, it is NOT just about having someone sit with you in the IEP meeting. You are paying for every bit of information that is inside my brain, as well as the dozens of advocates who I network with. There are only a few thousand people in this country who know the IEP process well. That’s what you’re paying for. A good advocate has the ability to strategize and develop a plan for your child. We’re great at troubleshooting and problem solving.

You are paying me to know who is the best person for your child’s IEE, and which IEE evaluators are going to find exactly what the school districts want them to find. You are hiring me to bounce ideas off of other advocates, as we develop a strategy for your child’s situation.

You are paying me to know just about every APS within 50 miles of here, and which ones you should consider for your child. You are paying me to know the history of the school district, to know what they are capable of, both good and bad. And how to effectively use the IEP process to get to your desired end result.

Won’t the School District Reimburse me for my Costs?

Yes, you can get your costs reimbursed. But only under very specific circumstances.

  • Reimbursed costs are only for attorneys, not advocates.
  • Advocates may, emphasis on may, during a settlement agreement, which is by no means a guarantee.
  • If the district is ordered to pay your legal fees, you have to prevail in Due Process. You will not recover if you lose.
  • Reimbursed fees is for attorneys only. Does not include any specialists or IEE people you brought in to testify for you (which often runs in the thousands).

Always openly and honestly discuss this with whoever you are considering hiring. You should know everything up front, as there are no guarantees.

Do you know what your IEP rights are?
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What to look for in a Special Education Advocate.

I have a separate blog post about IEP/Special Education Advocate. You’ll want to read that and see if your potential advocate has those skills and qualities.

I personally do not care for the personality trait of bulldozing into meetings, coming in with guns blazing. I have found that a strong but collaborative approach works best. If your potential advocate talks about “getting” the school or has a very abrasive attitude and personality, I’d stay away.

I never advise the “Wait and See.”

Whether it’s you who is saying this, or the school, I never think it is a good idea to “wait and see.” I have yet to see a bad situation resolve on its own.

I can’t even count the number of times I have seen this scenario:

Potential client: We cannot afford an advocate, so we’re just going to keep on going on our own.
Me: Sorry to hear that, call me if you change your mind.

Then, 6-12 months later, I get a desperate phone call, maybe on a Sunday, maybe even on Thanksgiving.

Same previous potential client: We really need your help! ‘Name’ has now been arrested/suspended/302’d.

Yes, this has really happened. A “wait and see” client waited and saw her child 302’d by the school the day before Thanksgiving.

And then, because the case is so much more complex, it’s more time consuming. Which mean more expensive, and perhaps now they even need a criminal attorney.

It’s a sacrifice. The money that you are spending on an advocate is going to take away from something else. I certainly wish it wasn’t that way. But sometimes we are left with no choice.

Why aren’t all IEP advocates free?

Is FAPE really free?

I get it. Believe me, I get it.

Your child is entitled to FAPE, and if you’re paying me, it’s not free.

It really grinds my gears when I hear someone say “$500 for an IEP meeting? Pffft, no way.” Because I will spend easily 10-20 hours on your child before we ever get to that meeting. I will review records and research options for you. I write letters for you. And then I attend the meeting and do the follow up for you.

After I pay taxes and child care for my own children, I am barely breaking even. It is about so much more than the hours I am with you.

It’s a tough pill to swallow, I get it. You shouldn’t have to pay a special education advocate $500-$1000 just to get your child what he is federally entitled to. I know the frustration. Just don’t take it out on the IEP advocate, k? We genuinely wish that our jobs would become extinct.

But for now, they are necessary. I’m not judging anyone’s family situation or household budget or what you can or cannot afford. I just find many families who really could come up with $500 or so for an advocate, but say they cannot.

When you cannot afford an IEP/Special Education Advocate or Attorney

The system is stacked against low and middle-income families, that is for sure.

  • Go for the consultation. Some offer a free consult, some charge a small fee. Do it. Don’t gather up boxes and boxes of files. But do a bullet pointed list of your child’s story and what data you have. Advocates and attorneys look at things from a much different angle than parents. You may really learn something, or at least if you have a case. And, it may not cost as much as you think.
  • Ask if they can take you on pro bono. If you have a slam dunk of a case that they think they have a good chance of winning, they can often recover the costs from the district (attorney only). If it’s a good risk, they may take you on.
  • Ask if you can set up a payment plan. Be honest about the maximum amount you can afford to pay each month and see what you can work out.
  • Consider a trade. Why not? If your husband is a contractor, see if you can trade services. Do you or your spouse teach music? art? anything? What about house cleaning services? Hey, think out of the box–there are lots of things I wouldn’t do under normal circumstances, but hey, when it comes to my kids. A trade is unusual, but you won’t know until you ask.
  • See if your city has free Legal Aid type services. It has been my experience that most of these types of free attorney tend to know family law or criminal law, but you won’t know until you try. You might find one with some IEP experience.
  • Don’t choose just based on price. If your money is tight, don’t go with the lowest price attorney if in your heart and your gut, you just don’t feel like it’s a good fit. Yes, price matters, none of us has unlimited budgets. But price isn’t everything. You may hire a $2000 attorney because you can afford it, but you lose….or pay $4000 and win. Paying more doesn’t guarantee a win…just make sure that they attorney is a good fit for your family, not just the price.
  • Call your state’s Protection and Advocacy agency. See if they know of low or no-cost special education attorneys. If they do not, ask if they know of other agencies who might know.
  • Call your Arc, call everyone. Call every disability advocacy agency in your area and ask.
  • Ask other parents. Exhaust all of your networking resources.
  • Borrow the money. Keep in mind, this problem is not likely to go away any time soon.
  • Ask your employer about options. Can you borrow against future pay? What about overtime? Read your employee handbook, there might just be some services you can get as a benefit that you are not aware of, including legal services.
  • Hold a fundraiser. I’m not really a fan of everyone and their brother starting a GoFundMe for every little thing….but sometimes there are valid reasons to ask others for help.
  • Consider other options. What is the cost of what you are asking for, for your child? Does it make more sense to just pay for it, instead of the attorney? Ask about scholarships and payment plans to private schools. Ask and see if your insurance covers it. How else can you get what it is you are seeking, without getting it from the school?
  • Most of the things that you would do to try to afford an attorney, you could/would do for an advocate. However, the chances that you will find a non-profit agency that has free or low-cost advocates are greater than finding a free attorney. So make sure you exhaust all resources and just Google your heart out.
  • In both scenarios, you can learn to do it yourself and be your child’s own advocate and go Pro Se for Due Process (represent yourself). Both will take a considerable amount of time.