How You Can Help Your Special Education Advocate or Attorney

Published on June 28, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

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If you have decided to retain the services of either a special education attorney or a non-attorney advocate, you are about to embark upon a difficult, but hopefully successful, venture together.  Most professionals charge for their time, and many do so by the hour.  Therefore, if you have made the decision to hire such an individual, there are some things you can do which, in my experience, will save some time.

When it comes to engaging the services of a special education attorney or advocate, time is money.

I tell all of my clients that I really hope to get them to the place where we can part ways, hopefully for the foreseeable future.  In order to make that happen, we need to resolve the immediate dispute which has precipitated the parents’ contact with my office as soon as is practical.

There are some very basic things that parents of children with special education needs can do to help “streamline” the process.

Every practitioner is different, but for me, I encourage my clients to send me (and ONLY me) the following:

  • Write up a “chronology of events” for your advocate or attorney.  This does not mean that every single detail or grade your child has ever received should be included; rather, a summary of each school year in a paragraph or two is appropriate.  More detail should be given to the events of the last two school years.  Include the names of staff when relevant, but don’t necessarily use this time to “argue” your case.  The pertinent facts are what will be needed by your special education advocate or attorney.
  • Draft a “wish list.”  I often say to my clients:  “if I had a magic wand, and could make anything happen for your child’s education other than erasing the underlying disabilities, what would you want?”  Write up what you want, even things you aren’t sure you might be entitled to under IDEA.  Your special education attorney or advocate should let you know whether your requests are reasonable or not.  Include in this list any services or evaluations you have funded privately during your child’s education, and the costs associated with them.
  • “Triage” your concerns in order of importance, and let your attorney or advocate know which of these items are “deal breakers” and why.  Your expectations or demands may be reasonable, and they may not be, but your special education lawyer or advocate won’t be able to tell you which until she understands what you want.
  • If you end up in a Due Process Hearing, spend some time in advance of each school district employee’s testimony to write up a “summary” of your relationship, contacts, experiences, and impressions of the various people who might be testifying on behalf of the Board.  It is very useful for me to know when I cross examine the speech pathologist, as an example, that he was really overwhelmed that year because the other speech pathologist in the building was out most of the year on maternity leave.
  • Sometimes parents have a particular background that might prove useful in the process of preparing a special education case, such as being psychologists or psychiatrists, related service providers, or lawyers themselves.  If your advocate or attorney is open to it, offer to conduct research, draft responses, or summarize transcripts for them.

What is helpful to one attorney or advocate may be unhelpful, or even irritating, to another.

Therefore, while this list represents some things that I find useful in my Connecticut special education practice, they may not be items that the attorney or advocate you hire does.  Ask your chosen advocate or lawyer what he wants, needs, or suggests, and really listen to the response.  Your attorney may want or require much less or much more than what I’ve outlined, and you should make sure you know what the expectations are.

If you ask 10 attorneys a question, you will get 10 different responses.

Every special education attorney or advocate has a different “comfort level” for involvement by the family.  Not one approach is necessarily right or wrong.  Just different.  Surely, however, there are things you could do that would make your attorney or advocate’s list of things to accomplish to secure your child’s appropriate programming easier.

Your experience with the special education legal process will go much more smoothly if you find a way to help at the outset.

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