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Friday, April 26, 2013

How to Choose A Special Education Lawyer

From The Law Office of Lillian Wong's Blog

By Lillian Wong, Esq.
April 22, 2013

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NOTE: This is the 2nd of two guest posts by Attorney Lillian E. Wong. The first, "5 Reasons You Shouldn't Hire a Special Education Attorney," appeared on April 23rd.

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By the time you decide to hire a special education attorney, the stakes are high. You are frustrated with the school and worried about your child. Not only can retaining the wrong lawyer waste your time and money, it can permanently damage your child's education.

So, how do you choose the right law firm?

1. Find a Specialist. Special education law is complex and not part of the traditional law school curriculum. Just because an attorney passed the state bar doesn't mean that he or she is qualified to represent your child! The more specialized the law practice, the more likely the attorney is to understand the intricacies of special education law.

2. Ask about Experience. Just because a lawyer specializes in special education law doesn't mean he or she has experience. The ideal lawyer has participated in IEP / 504 Meetings, Manifestation Determinations, Informal and Formal Settlement Negotiations (including settlement conferences at the BSEA) and Due Process Hearings (including expedited hearings).

Make sure the lawyer has drafted their own settlement agreements and understands the dangers of simply signing a settlement agreement drafted by the school.

Here in Massachusetts, most special education disputes end in settlement, so you may be surprised to find that an attorney who has practiced for five or even ten years has never brought a case to hearing before the Board of Special Education Appeals. Even if your case never results in a hearing, it is important to hire an attorney who understands the process from start to finish.

3. Inquire about Relationships. A good special education attorney understands the role of all the key players in the special education process and has a relationship with these individuals and institutions. He or she can recommend educational advocates, evaluators, and other experts. Your lawyer should be familiar with the reputation of the schools' lawyers and special education directors and be regarded by them as a knowledgeable and reasonable advocate. 

4. Locate a Listener. The attorney's job is to represent you and your child. This is impossible to do if the lawyer doesn't understand your situation and your goals. How do you make sure the lawyer is listening to you? The attorney should ask relevant questions, take notes, and ask for clarification when he or she doesn't understand.

5. Assess Communication Skills. When you hire a lawyer, you are finding someone to speak (and write) on your behalf. Look for an attorney who comes across as both knowledgeable and understandable. The best attorneys know how to make the most complex laws and confusing facts accessible to the lay-person.

6. Reward a Realist. Special education law is far from perfect. Beware of attorneys that make unrealistic promises - reimbursement of fees, guaranteed private school placements, and elimination of future special education conflicts. An effective special education attorney understands the law and its limits and sets realistic expectations from the start.

7. Prioritize Professionalism. Make sure the lawyer establishes professional boundaries. Without boundaries, the attorney-client relationship can erode, leading to poor communication, billing-controversies, and mutual-frustration. So how can you assess professionalism in your initial interactions with the lawyer? Read over the agreement of representation. Does it:
  • Clearly define the responsibilities and rights of both the attorney and the parent?
  • Are you informed of the payment structure and frequency of billing?
  • Think about your initial conversations with the lawyer. Did the attorney inquire about the best way to communicate with you? Did the attorney inform you about the best way to communicate with him? Did the attorney set expectations about the frequency of your communication? Without good communication and expectation-setting, the relationship will fail.
8. Discuss the Forest and the Trees. The special education journey is a long one. You need to find a lawyer that will address your immediate concerns (the "trees") while simultaneously helping you achieve your long-term goals for your child (the "forest"). A good special education lawyer will inquire about your short-term and long-term concerns help you formulate a step-by-step plan that addresses both.

9. Contract with a Child-Centric Firm. The best special education lawyers became education attorneys, not for the money or the prestige, but to help children. Look for an attorney who redirects conversations to your child's needs and shows sensitivity to your parental concerns. Special education law shouldn't be about money, revenge, and "winning;" it's about helping your child get the education he or she needs and deserves.

About Lillian Wong, Esq.

Lillian Wong is a special education attorney who has represented clients at IEP meetings, manifestation determinations, due process hearings and settlement negotiations. Read her client reviews here.

Ms. Wong is a graduate of UCLA Law School and Dartmouth College (Summa Cum Laude), and a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA), the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), The Special Needs Advocacy Network (SPAN), and Massachusetts Advocates for Children's Coalition to Defend Special Education. She also sits on the Advisory Board of Autism Asperger's Digest.

1 comment:

  1. It is great news to me because I am looking for choosing a education lawyer recently. But I was very disappointed for the justifying who will be better lawyer for me. Finally got your information and ways. I am very happy. Corporation Advantages And Disadvantages

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