The stakes are incredibly high when one is representing the interests of children with special education needs. While I think it is a good idea to weigh the “pros and cons” of entering any field of practice, or any profession for that matter, my personal belief is that this particular calling requires more consideration, research and training than one gets in law school. This is especially true, since most law schools do not even offer a course on special education law.
If you are considering becoming a parents’ attorney under the IDEA, here are the most important things I would recommend you do:
Tip #3: Go to Disability Focused Conferences.
While the law on special education is quite complicated, I have long felt that any good lawyer committed to learning about the IDEA could get to a point where they understand it. However, understanding special education itself is an entirely different matter.
In order to effectively advocate for your clients with special education needs, you will need to understand different disabilities, and the interventions and services which exist to teach students with special needs.
What is dyslexia? How does it differ from a non-verbal learning disability? What is dysgraphia? What is ADD, and how is it different from ADHD? What is Asperger’s Disorder? What disorders fall on the autism spectrum? What does “NOS” mean? What is Applied Behavior Analysis, and how does ABA differ from other methods? What is Oppositional Defiant Disorder? Can you diagnose a child with Bipolar Disorder, and if so, at what age? Can a student be tested for a Central Auditory Processing Disorder in preschool? How does Occupational Therapy differ from Physical Therapy? What is a WIAT, and how does it differ from the Woodcock Johnson?
These are just a few of the hundreds of questions which might be raised at the various meetings you might attend when you begin representing children with special education needs. Unless you happen to have a background in special education, you will feel quite lost until you get a lot of experience.
In my opinion, one of the best ways to gain the special education knowledge you will need is to attend conferences focused on various disabilities.
And don’t just attend one, attend many. One of the things that continues to amaze me, after all of these years of practicing special education law in Connecticut, is how many different approaches to treatment exist within each of the populations of disability, all of which have strong proponents. If your client’s school district is recommending a program, and you don’t know anything about it, you will be at a serious disadvantage when you try to discredit it.
And if you end up in litigation, you will be ill-prepared to cross-examine the school’s witnesses if you don’t understand the nuances of special education.
It won’t happen quickly, but over time you will begin to understand more than you ever imagined about special education. Until you do, however, I recommend going to as many disability related conferences as your calendar will possibly allow. If nothing else, you might meet a potential expert witness there.