For many families, there comes a time in your IEP journey that you and the school reach an impasse. You’ve gone back and forth and had many meetings over many months. Now, you’re staring down an IEP that you don’t think is sufficient for your child.
Or, maybe there was one egregious incident–either from school staff or a bullying incident. In sharing this story, others told you “get an IEP attorney!” So where to do you start? How do you find a special education attorney? How much does a special education attorney cost?
Over the years I have referred many of my advocacy clients to attorneys and I have a good working relationship with many of them. And, as a well known advocate, I hear stories of great attorneys and not-so-great attorneys.
If you’re thinking about hiring a lawyer for your child’s IEP and filing for IEP Due Process, here are some starting points.
My standard disclaimer: I am not an attorney, nor do I play one on the internet. This is what I recommend to my advocacy clients, based on 10+ years of advocacy experience.
First, what else have you tried? Has anyone shown you how to advocate for your child? Have you been using data and documentation, the PWN, and the outlined IEP process to get your child’s needs met ?
This paragraph may seem like a shameless plug for my online advocacy training, but I can assure you that it’s not. However, over the years, I have met countless parents who think they are advocating for their child. But, the old “they don’t know what they don’t know” applies, and they have never learned how to use data and documentation in the process.
Advocating for your child is so much more than speaking up at meetings and asking for what your child needs. It’s being able to demonstrate, on paper, that your child needs what you are requesting to access FAPE. (read that again…and, are you doing this?)
Just a consideration to throw out there if you are waffling on the idea of hiring an IEP attorney. Or, your spouse/co-parent is not on board with it.
How to Become a Special Education Attorney
Obviously, they need to be lawyers, admitted to the bar in your state. But that’s only a starting point.
I have heard stories from parents who contacted other attorneys, or attorney-friends they have, and that person said “Sure, I can do that.”
IDEA law is very complex and the climate is much more litigious than it was just 10 years ago. You need more than someone who dismissively says “Yeah, I can do that.”
You want to hire an IEP attorney who does this as a specialty. Very little of this is taught in law schools. Much of the training comes after law school, either through experience or trainings and conferences held by groups like COPAA.
You do not want a lawyer who:
- Does primarily civil rights law, for your IEP issue. While both are about disabled kids and their rights, they are very different arenas. And, different sets of laws!
- Does primarily family law, for your IEP issue. Family law is stuff like divorce and custody issues. If you have a divorce issue with your IEP, then a family attorney would be appropriate.
You want a lawyer who specializes in IEPs. Period.
Special Education Law is certainly not one of the more ‘sexy’ practice areas for lawyers. As such, you may find attorneys dismissive of this and who do not take it seriously. Since it’s a very small practice area for a marginalized population, it is thought that “anyone can do it.” They cannot.
Do not hire people who are not experienced in this practice area.
Your school district will have a law firm on board whose lawyers do nothing but defend school districts in IEP disputes, all day every day. If you hire someone who has not gone up against these firms, you’ll lose and waste money, and waste valuable learning years.
How Much does an IEP Attorney Cost?
This is what is on parents’ minds most often–the cost. I know of parents who had their issues resolved quickly and without a full Due Process hearing and it cost them only $2500. I know families who have spent upwards of $30,000 and lost. And everything in between.
Where can I find a Free Special Education Attorney?
Yes, most attorneys do “pro bono” work. But, finding a “free” attorney is not as easily and as readily available as one might think.
I do not know how many requests they get. I know that me, personally, as an IEP advocate, that I get 5-10 requests every week for free services. Due to the sheer volume, I turn most of them down. If I wanted to, I could spend 12 hours a day, every day, doing free IEP consulting and never run out of work. But, I have a family to feed too. So, I charge for services for most of my clients.
For every 20-25 active clients I have on my caseload, I may take 1 pro bono client. Both advocacy work and legal work is quite time consuming when done correctly. I would expect that most good IEP attorneys are turning down as many requests as I am.
But, not all is lost. Keep reading.
Won’t the School District pay my Attorney’s Fees?
The answer here is a solid “maybe.” Yes, in some circumstances, if you either prevail at Due Process or you reach a settlement agreement with your school district, your attorney fees will wrapped into it.
However, this is not guaranteed. You want to ask your prospective attorney about this during your initial consult.
And, even if your attorney fees get covered, your expert witness fees will not be. That is, if your child gets an IEE as part of this process (and it’s really common!) and you want that person to testify at the due process hearing, those costs will be out of pocket for you. The statutes do not allow for this reimbursement.
Start with a Consult
Your starting point is the consult. Some are free, some are not. I would not choose an attorney based on that factor alone. As an advocate who does do free consults, I frequently get my time wasted. I understand why some attorneys charge a fee.
It’s still a low-risk way to meet an attorney to see if it’s a good fit. And, they should give you a good idea of whether or not you have a case.
If an attorney tells you that you do not have a case….it does not mean that your concerns are not valid.
Having a valid case, and being able to prove that in a due process hearing are two different things. If you are told you do not have a case, ask them why or why not. What can you do to begin to line up a better case?
Many moons ago, I was told just that–that if I went to due process for my son, I likely would not prevail. That attorney also told me what I could do to increase my chances of success, including recommended IEEs.
Read and Review ALL Contracts
You want to be crystal clear on what is happening once you choose a lawyer. What are the fees, and what does that include? If you do not prevail, what are the additional costs to appeal?
If you prevail, and the district appeals (and, they usually do!), how much will that cost?
Most importantly: If you receive a sum of money, either as part of a settlement agreement or a comp ed fund of some kind, will the attorney be receiving any of this?
There is one firm around here that takes 30% of settlement and comp ed funds. One lawyer recently acquired $27,000 for the student….and kept $20,000 of it.
What does $7k get you, as far as services? Not much! That won’t even cover an IEE around here.
My guess is that the parent didn’t know this at the start of the relationship. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated, just because they are lawyers in suits. Do not allow your emotions and frustration to control your sense of urgency and decision-making.
Yes, you want this situation resolved. But you must be level-headed in your decisions and read everything. Imagine going through all of what that parent went through…only to walk away with $7k in a settlement agreement.
Finding a Special Education Attorney
You want an attorney who works for parents, not districts. If the attorney is doing both, I personally would not choose them if I had other options. In my mind, they will be biased.
The best option if you can find one, is an attorney who works on the family side now, but used to work for districts. They are out there! Read up on their CV on websites.
Finding an attorney who has been on the other side, has seen the injustices and said “Oh snap this is awful, I want to go help kids instead” is a great option. They know how the other side thinks and acts in these cases.
I would start with the COPAA website, they have a list of attorneys on there. And, none of them can be school district employees to be on that website. The Yellow Pages for Kids is the other place I send parents if they are not in the Philadelphia area.
Take your time, be thorough, deep breaths….you can get through this.