7 Observations From A Special Education Law Attorney
Budget cuts due to lower property taxes have resulted in an adversarial environment in special education. There are fewer resources for more students. The current climate dictates that you may need an attorney to achieve better results in fighting for your child’s needs in the public schools.
In a lot of situations, there may already be a lot of contention between the family and the school when services are not being delivered. Frustrations with the child’s academic performance, or what is perceived as a lack of sufficient services, often time spills over to the relationship between parents and school.
A trained attorney can enter the equation, without emotion, but with the knowledge to develop a plan that sees the child receiving the services to which they are entitled under the law.
Here are my some important observations that will help you in your decision to hire an advocated or Special Education Attorney.
1. Special Education Attorneys Know the Law
Any time that a family walks into a meeting with the school’s special education team, they are already giving up home field advantage. As a parent, you are meeting with a bevy of professionals who are well versed in all aspects of state and federal special education law. This is their specialty.
You are typically a concerned parent who works and is trying to attend to a child with special needs, usually without much help. You don’t have time, or the training, to know what services your child is entitled to or your rights.
An attorney specializing in special education law knows your rights and what services are required to be provided by law. Consulting an attorney first, or bringing an attorney to a meeting with the special education team, takes away the intimidation factor and evens the playing field.
2. The Family and Special Education Team are Often on the Same Side
A lot of times families take an adversarial approach to their child’s special education team. They view it as “us versus them” as though they are across the table like late night labor contract negotiations.
The team’s opinions may be correct and they may know what is best for your child, despite your disagreement. Most educators and professionals whom I have met that work in the field of special education do so because they sincerely like children and want to help them.
Of course there is a bad apple in every bunch, but they are not the majority. Most special education team members are finding their caseload increased every year because of budget cuts where they find themselves servicing children at up to five schools.
Let an objective attorney look at your IEP and the decisions of the team. A good attorney will be honest with you in his/her assessment and tell you the truth, whether you want to hear it or not.
3. Principles are Expensive
I learned this valuable saying early on in my legal career. If a parent is not pursuing legal action for outcome driven results, but to be a thorn in the side of the school, or to allegedly protect future generations, you will typically not be satisfied.
As a parent, my goal is to secure all the services for my child that he is legally entitled to and needs to thrive and succeed. I rarely make school disagreements personal and don’t think special education teams are “out to get” my family.
I respect idealism and those who fight based on principle for others. Be mindful though, that such fights are expensive and often, one has little to nothing to show for their efforts, other than a depleted pocket book and an ulcer.
Remember, your goal is to get your child the services they need. That is certainly worth the fight. Taking on school districts, seeking the removal of teachers, and other grand projects take valuable time away from your relationship with your child. Put your focus where it needs to be. Again, always remember what the purpose is and don’t get distracted by personalities or vendettas.
4. Chronologically Organize Your Child’s Files Before We Meet
When a family member comes in with a box of unorganized documents and drops them on my desk, I have to take the time to sort, organize, and review all those documents. You are in essence, paying your attorney at an expensive rate to do what you could have done at home for free.
Go to your office supply store, purchase binders and tabs, three-hole punch your documents, and organize them by year. Within each year, sort the documents chronologically. When you present your documents neatly organized, it is much easier for your attorney to see whether goals have been met and what services are needed. You will save money and time.
5. Attorneys Have to Charge for their Time
Attorneys are allotted so many hours in a day and thus, must charge for their time it’s their commodity. Whether it’s answering a telephone call, reviewing documents, faxing or e-mailing, we must charge for these services.
When you hire a special education attorney you are receiving a valuable service in return. I have found that typically when a client is more solution-oriented, the bills are smaller. When communicating with your attorney, focus on resolution. Save the bellyaching for your spouse, or someone else whom you are not paying by the hour.
Special education attorneys are not seeking to retire off of your case; we do it because we love children, and are often personally affected by these issues.
6. Select an Attorney Who Understands Your Child’s Needs
There is an old saying that a cab driver can deliver a baby if there are no complications. Special education is governed by a unique set of state and federal laws that are ever changing. Make sure the attorney you select is qualified to represent your child’s needs in special education.
Attorneys for the school districts are well versed in education law and will have a tactical advantage over an attorney who just dabbles in the area. Select a special education law attorney who understands your child’s disability, his/her needs, and the services required.
How can an attorney represent the needs of your child if he doesn’t understand them?
7. The Law Moves Slowly
It would be nice if legal cases were wrapped up in one hour as they are on television. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Special education laws build in time for schools to respond to claims and to develop plans for the children. Special education teams have large caseloads and cannot typically meet at the drop off a hat.
Prepare to be patient. As parents of children with disabilities, we specialize in patience. Don’t forget to exercise it when dealing with your attorney and the legal process.
Image Credit: Coleen Tomko
About The Author
Michael R. Dorfman is an attorney and partner at Nykanen Dorfman, PLLC in Farmington Hills, Michigan. In his special education law practice, Michael represents students and their families when there is a conflict with the school district or when an appropriate education is not being provided.