DO I REALLY NEED A LAWYER?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) guarantees all children with disabilities a free appropriate public education. Unfortunately, that right is not self-executing; students and their parents must be vigilant and persistent to secure and maintain the services and accommodations to which they are entitled under the law. While parents are often the most effective advocates for their children, most parents of a child with a disability will—at some point during their child’s education—find themselves at an impasse with the school district over their child’s educational rights. Many parents in that situation find themselves thinking “is now the time for me to call a special education lawyer?”
Of course, there is no “right” answer to that question. A lawyer is not a magician or Svengali. No matter how smart, experienced, and capable a lawyer may be, a single letter, phone call, or appearance at an IEP meeting usually will not be enough to cause a school district to accede to the parents’ demands. And hiring a lawyer is expensive, potentially very expensive. Hiring a lawyer is an investment in a child’s education, in a child’s future. Parents need information to evaluate the potential return this investment may provide.
Of course, every situation is unique. Parents involved in due process hearings—an administrative trial requiring the presentation of evidence and witness testimony—consistently achieve better outcomes when represented by a lawyer than when proceeding on their own. A 2015 comprehensive, nationwide study of due process hearing decisions over the past 35 years found that parents proceeding without an attorney prevailed in only 14% of their cases, whereas parents represented by lawyers prevailed in 58% of their cases. While these statistics demonstrate the value lawyers can bring to the special education process, they should not necessarily be interpreted as evidence that hiring a lawyer improves parents’ chances of prevailing in a dispute with a school district.
A good special education lawyer will help parents evaluate the strength of their case, the reasonableness of the relief they are seeking, and the likelihood of achieving their goals. This screening function may explain some of the disparity of outcomes between represented and unrepresented parents in due process. Parents who hired lawyers may not have won because they hired lawyers. Rather, the lawyers may have been willing to take their cases because they were winnable. Parents with weaker cases may have been forced to proceed without lawyers because no lawyer was interested in their case.
This screening function is valuable in and of itself; it is one of many reasons parents may benefit from consulting with a lawyer. A good special education lawyer will help parents make an informed decision about whether to commit the time, money, and emotional energy to a due process hearing. But lawyers can play an important role in the special education process long before litigation becomes necessary.
A good special education lawyer can help parents:
- secure their child’s educational records;
- request an evaluation or IEP meeting;
- prepare for a special education eligibility meeting;
- prepare for an IEP meeting;
- evaluate an IEP proposed by the school district; and
- otherwise navigate the complex, often confusing, special education system.
Lawyers are problem solvers. When—as often happens—communication between parents and a school district has broken down and their trust has been eroded, a good special education lawyer can resume productive communications between the parties, bring the focus back to the student (where it belongs), and help fashion a creative solution to a problem that is acceptable to everyone.
Todd Ratner PLC has worked with many students with disabilities and their families to obtain the full benefits of the free appropriate public education guaranteed by the IDEA. We encourage anyone with a specific special education problem or questions about the special education process to contact Todd Ratner at 804-665-1042 or firstname.lastname@example.org.