Making the Most of Your Special Education Attorney
By Dria Fearn, Esq.
While it can be costly to hire a special education attorney, it often makes the difference in obtaining the services and accommodations necessary to ensure your child’s success. As an attorney, I know how expensive lawyers can be, but there are ways to save money by maximizing their effectiveness when you retain one. Following are truths and tips to help you do that.
Time is money: Lawyers charge for their time, and I mean all of their time. Whether in meetings, phone calls, or emails, with you, the school district, or opposing counsel, we charge in 6-minute increments. We also know that these issues are personal and heart-wrenching, so we hesitate to cut you off. If you find you are using your attorney for therapy purposes, you may want to consult a professional therapist, who is not only trained to handle your psychological issues, but is probably less expensive per hour than your lawyer.
Your child is #1: Your child’s education is personal, so if the school district is not doing what you want, you may feel wronged. But most cases are not simply good versus evil; even if you feel personal animus toward the district, stay focused on your primary objective, which is to get your child the services she needs to be successful, and do what you have to do to get the job done.
You are the decision maker, not your child: As the parent you know what your child needs, even if it is not what he wants. I’ve had parents desperately seek to represent their child’s wants, even when not in his best interest. You enforced bedtimes and eating vegetables amid protest; when it comes to school placement and accommodations, it’s no time to cave.
Assessments are road maps, so make sure yours is current: If your child has ADHD, learning disabilities, or other impairments, she must have a current evaluation performed every three years to receive services. Without a current assessment there are no facts or evidence for you to dispute the school’s offer of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).
Know your rights, but don’t believe everything you read on the Internet: The Internet is an amazing resource that provides quick and easy access to massive amounts of intel. Unfortunately, that information is not always accurate or applicable to your situation. While it is important to stay informed of your rights, be mindful of the resources you use and how much you rely on them.
Don’t hire an attorney if you are not prepared to follow her advice: Sounds obvious, right? However, some parents have their own ideas of what they want to accomplish, even if it is not feasible. For example, if your child was diagnosed with dyslexia seven years ago, she is not entitled to extended time or other accommodations, even if previously provided, without a current assessment. You will not get those services without reassessment, so listen to your attorney and consent to the reassessment, which is actually in your best interest.
Tips for Success
You can consult an attorney before you have a problem with the school district: A growing number of attorneys offer limited, advisory services prior to your first Individual Education Plan (IEP) or 504 meeting. While taking an attorney into an initial meeting is potentially adversarial and is not generally advisable, you can still send all materials (see below) to an attorney for review. You’d then have a prep session to discuss your rights and strategy. This ensures that you are well-informed from the get-go, but may also preserve your relationship with the school district, whom you will have to work with after your attorney exits the picture. This strategy also saves you money, because you won’t be paying an attorney to attend meetings and deal directly with the district.
Organize documents for your attorney: Every parent has stacks of evaluations, letters, transcripts, emails, notes, old IEPs, etc. While your attorney needs to see copies of everything (you retain originals), you can help reduce the time needed for review—and your bill—by providing everything in an organized fashion. I ask my clients to organize all correspondence by date, implemented IEPs by date, and evaluations chronologically by date. When in doubt, put everything in order by date, and make sure that there are no duplicates.
Before you turn over your file, be sure that it contains the most recent copy of your child’s school records. Many districts have their own forms, and you have a right to obtain copies, although you may be charged for copying. Doing this on your own saves you the time and money it takes your lawyer to tell you to do it and to prepare your records request.
Follow instructions the first time to avoid charges resulting from unnecessary follow-up: Lawyers instruct their clients to take certain actions (i.e. provide paperwork, sign forms). If you don’t complete your tasks in a timely fashion, we have to follow up with you, which is the quickest way to rack up attorney’s fees. (And between us, that is not something that I enjoy doing, because it takes away from what I am trying to accomplish for you and for my other clients.)
Billing: My firm bills clients monthly, so they know where they stand. If your attorney does not do that, you should ask for it. It is also standard to ask clients for an initial deposit along with the fee agreement, which is deposited in the attorney’s client trust account. The attorney deducts the invoiced amount from the deposit at the end of each billing period, and then bills for the outstanding balance (if any) and/or another deposit. You should always receive an invoice, even if your deposit covered the amount earned by the attorney.
Dria Fearn received her B.A. from UCLA, and J.D. from UC Hastings College of the Law, where she was the Senior Symposium Editor of the Hastings Law Journal. Dria has her own law practice in Oakland, California, and may be contacted directly at email@example.com or (510) 788-0607.