The difference between special education advocates and attorneys

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

Expert reviewed by Amanda Morin

You may be thinking about hiring a special education advocate or attorney to help your child get services in school. But what’s the difference between the two?

In some ways, advocates and attorneys have similar roles. Both can:

  • Negotiate with the school on your behalf
  • Write letters to the school on your behalf (or help you write them)
  • Review your child’s IEP or 504 plan
  • Attend IEP or 504 plan meetings
  • Give you information about your child’s rights
  • Advise you on strategy for working with the school
  • Recommend specialists, service providers, evaluators, and schools

While advocates and attorneys share things in common, there are big differences. This chart shows how the roles of an advocate and an attorney are different.

 Special Education AdvocateSpecial Education Attorney
Basic description

A person who guides you through the special education process.

A legal professional who represents you in a dispute with a school.
Professional qualificationsAnyone can say they are an advocate. There is no license or certification.

An attorney must have a license to practice law in your state.

Can practice law


But in some states, an advocate can represent you in a due process or impartial hearing.

Yes. Attorneys can:

  • Give you legal advice
  • Prepare legal complaints and papers
  • Represent you in a due process or impartial hearing
  • Represent you in a lawsuit in state or federal court
Special skills

Some advocates are former teachers or education specialists. Depending on their background, they may be able to:

  • Give advice on education services
  • Suggest teaching methods or behavior strategies
  • Consult with you on assistive technology 
  • Share information on the ins and outs of your local school system

An attorney’s main skill is legal.

However, like advocates, some attorneys have special background skills.
How schools react

Some schools are open to working with advocates. They may allow them to facilitate meetings, or even to mediate between you and the school.

Other schools aren’t as open. If you bring an advocate to a meeting, the school may bring its lawyer.

Most schools are wary of attorneys. If you bring an attorney to a meeting, the school will bring its attorney.

At the same time, having a lawyer shows that you’re serious. Schools often respond quickly when they see you have an attorney.

How much they cost

Advocates charge fees, but usually less than what attorneys charge.

Attorneys can be expensive. Many charge $100 or more per hour.


Whether you’re looking for an advocate or an attorney, it’s important to ask questions. This will help you decide if someone has the right background to get the results you want for your child.

Here’s a list of questions you can ask an attorney:

  • What is your legal experience?
  • How long have you practiced special education law?
  • How many due process hearings and lawsuits have you handled, and what were the results?
  • Have you represented a child with challenges like mine?
  • Can you give me a proposed plan of how you think we should pursue this case?
  • What are your legal fees and what services are covered?
  • How much do you estimate your representation will cost for the entire case?
  • Do you have a legal fee agreement?
  • Do you have malpractice insurance?
  • What will be my role as a parent in this case?
  • How will you keep me informed about progress?
  • Who will be responsible for managing my child’s records in this case?

Here is a list of questions you can ask an advocate:

  • What is your special education advocacy experience?
  • Do you have any advocacy training?
  • Have you worked with this school district before?
  • Have you worked with a child with challenges like mine?
  • Can you give me a proposed plan of what we should do or ask for from the school?
  • What are your fees?
  • What services are covered in that fee?
  • How much do you estimate your advocacy will cost for the entire case?
  • What will be my role as a parent in this case?
  • How will you keep me informed about progress?

Special education advocates and attorneys can help your child in different ways. Understanding the differences is key as you try to get the help your child needs. Make sure you let the school know beforehand if you’re bringing an advocate or an attorney to a meeting.

Learn more about:

About the author

About the author

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days. 


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