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 #8: Don’t pretend you’re something you’re not.
Look, everyone has to start somewhere, and yes, over 12 years ago there was a parent who had to be the first parent to have their Connecticut Due Process Hearing handled by me. The fact that we won was, of course, a nice boost, but at the time we made it abundantly clear to the parents that, while I had trained and mentored with my dad for years, this would be my very first special education Due Process Hearing as an attorney. They were willing to have me handle their case because they had spent time with me and trusted me, and because they were charged less than they would have been to have a more seasoned attorney represent them.
The point is not that you should be ashamed if you don’t have experience yet; the point is that you need to make it clear to the client what your experience is.
Far too often I hear of special education cases that were handled by attorneys who did not understand special education law. In some parts of the country, parents of children with disabilities have little choice but to ask their family attorney, including sometimes the guy who handled their closing, to familiarize themselves with the IDEA. I understand all to well that quality representation for parents of children through the special education process is hard to come by. But if you are one of those attorneys who is new to the field, be clear about it.
I always say, the only thing worse than inheriting a file from an advocate who didn’t know what they were doing is inheriting a file from an attorney who didn’t know what they were doing.
If you do not really understand the IDEA and your state’s special education laws, please try to work with other attorneys in your community before you start taking on cases that are beyond your reach. You may be able to get some clients who are willing to take a risk on you at little or no cost, but you have risks as well. You risk developing a reputation among the special education directors, attorneys, and Hearing Officers in your State of being unprepared or ignorant as to the special education laws. You risk creating bad precedent that you, and the rest of us, will have to live with. And worst of all, you could dramatically harm the legal relationship between the parents and the school district for years to come.
You can seriously harm a child with disabilities if you don’t know what you’re doing.
To be blunt, if you are not sure what area of the law you want to focus on, or you hate your current position, don’t “tinker” with becoming a parents’ special education lawyer. If you think this kind of practice is for you, do what so many of the fantastic young people who have contacted me as they are reading this series are doing: reach out to current practitioners before you take on cases.