By Andrew M.I. Lee
You might consider hiring a lawyer if the school refuses to provide services for your child. But how do you select a good lawyer? And what are your options for covering the cost? Here are some ideas.
If you’re not satisfied with the first attorney you talk to, meet with another. Talking to another attorney may give you a better sense of how your case could be resolved. A good lawyer should also be able to provide you with names of satisfied clients who are willing to speak with you.
Make sure you know how the lawyer will charge you. Get an estimate for what the case could cost before the lawyers starts work. From the very beginning, you want to know the legal fees you could end up paying. The fee agreement should be in writing. Keep in mind you’ll probably pay by the hour.
Find a lawyer who is an expert in special education. Expertise matters. This area of the law is highly specialized. Review the lawyer’s website and make sure she regularly handles special education cases. The lawyer should be knowledgeable about federal and state laws.
Consider hiring a lawyer who represents families in your child’s school district. Schools have different ways of handling disputes. Sometimes a lawyer who knows the school district may be in a better position to represent you. It also may be helpful if the lawyer knows local service providers, doctors and other professionals.
You might consider leaning on your family and close friends for financial help. Rather than birthday presents or holiday gifts, perhaps ask members of your family to help support your child’s education. You’ll need to explain to them how hiring a lawyer could help your child while also being clear that you might not win the case. You may be surprised at their willingness to give or lend you money.
If you can’t afford the lawyer’s fees, ask for a discount or payment plan. Some special education attorneys provide discounted or even free representation to families in financial need. This is known as pro bono legal work. Others will offer a payment plan to suit your budget. If your family income is low, some nonprofit organizations will connect you with pro bono attorneys.
Find a lawyer who works well with you. Disputes with schools can be stressful. You need a lawyer you (and maybe your child) can communicate with and feel comfortable asking questions. It’s important that you know how to contact your lawyer. This might be by phone or email (but keep in mind that lawyers charge for their time—and for each email and call).
Make sure the lawyer understands the facts of your situation. Most lawyers give a free initial consultation. This is when you can tell them your situation. Come prepared to explain everything you think is important and to answer questions. A good lawyer should be able to give you a sense of your options and the possible outcomes of your case.
Informal meetings with your school—such as evaluation, teacher and IEP team meetings—can be a good time to negotiate for the educational services your child needs. Here are 11 tips on informal negotiation strategies.
Special education can seem like a foreign language. You may hear unfamiliar terms and acronyms in meetings and wish for a translator! Learn these key terms and you may find it easier to protect your child’s rights.
Andrew M.I. Lee is an editor and former attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education and parenting issues.
Patricia H. Latham, J.D., is an attorney and mediator and the coauthor of eight books on disability and the law.
10 Smart Responses for When the School Cuts or Denies Services
10 Steps to Take If Your Child Is Denied Services
Where to Find Legal Help
The Difference Between Special Education Advocates and Attorneys
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