As a Connecticut special education attorney, you may think I am the worst businesswoman on the planet to be writing a series like this. Unfortunately there are so many children with special education needs out there whose parents require the help of good lawyers, that many of us who are already representing kids throughout the country wish we had more, and better, competition.
And candidly, I’m sick of inheriting cases that were poorly handled by attorneys who didn’t really understand the IDEA or special education law.
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 #1. Be sure you are getting into this field for the right reasons.
I made this the first tip because I think it is the most important.
I am actually a second generation special education attorney. My late father, who was a civil rights attorney, “fell into” representing kids with disabilities in the 1980s, when a man who he was representing in an employment dispute called him to see if he would represent his son at an emergency IEP meeting the next day. He read the IDEA, went to the meeting, and was astounded by how much the actions of the district varied from their legal requirements.
Mostly, he was disgusted by how arrogant and dismissive the school staff were towards the parents.
As a tireless fighter for the underdog, he was pretty much hooked at that point. Soon thereafter my mother, who is now retired, graduated from law school and started working on some of the special education cases as well. It became a family passion, with my sisters and me working for the firm at various points in our lives and in various capacities. I was attending IEP meetings, Mediations and Due Process Hearings in Connecticut in high school, college, and law school, so I might be one of the only people in the country who was actually raised to be a special education lawyer. At this point, it’s in my blood.
That is a very rare path to have taken to become a parents’ attorney. Many attorneys get into this field because they have an educational or work history that includes some special education background, such as being a special education teacher. Others are attorneys who ended up being the parent of a child with special education needs, and had to learn about the IDEA to advocate for their own child. There are even some parents who decided to go to law school to focus on this area of practice after having to become experts for their own child’s case. Still others are drawn to practice civil rights or public interest law in general, and found special education law compelling for any number of reasons.
Representing children with special education needs is extremely rewarding, but it is also very difficult.
When a Parent has reached the point where they want to hire a lawyer to fight their school district over their child’s special education needs, things are pretty bad. Parents often feel that their child’s entire future rests in your hands, and in some ways it does.
This is not an area of the law in which one should dabble.
To be a special education attorney, you need a combination of empathy and tenacity. Compassion for how frustrated, demoralized, and sometimes outright furious your clients are likely to be, and courageous enough to stand up to the establishment. After all, you will be going against school districts, and often the State in which you practice.
You will be “fighting City Hall,” and almost always they have more resources than you or your clients do.
Do not decide to practice special education law because you think it sounds interesting, or because you think the hours are better than being a School Board attorney (PS, they’re not), or because you think every case you handle will be a winner because you’re on the side of justice.
It doesn’t work that way.
You’ll be pushing the ball uphill, as bureaucratic special education administrators make life-altering decisions about vulnerable children before your very eyes, and you’ll be witness to how very unfair our educational and judicial system can be. Meanwhile, you will be trying to explain to your clients that even though the law says that a school can’t do something, they can still get away with doing it until you fight them. Plus, you will be fielding urgent phone calls about kids being hospitalized or arrested, hearing incredibly sad stories about what some of these amazing families tackle every day, and taking a lot of deep breaths.
Being a special education attorney who represents children with disabilities requires a great deal of patience, passion and perseverance.
And if you’re in it for the right reasons, it is the best job in the world.