Cost Control when Retaining a Special Education Attorney or Lawyer

Advice on paying for a special education lawyer when you have problems with your child's school. An interview with David A. Sherman, special education attorney and author of Autism: Asserting Your Child's Right to a Special Education.

Interview by Allison Martin

How can an attorney or lawyer be helpful to parents and their child in the special education process?

Special education law is complex. A good attorney can advise a parent how to obtain a better program and services, how to effectively advocate for the child. A special education attorney will advise a parent as to how to assert their child's numerous and substantial rights. For instance, one of the most important things a parent can do is to have a private autism expert assess the child.

If there is a dispute at an IEP meeting, and the school district refuses to provide a program or services that the parents believe is appropriate, what can the parent do? A parent's only remedy, if there is an impasse, is to file for due process. However, the school districts know that if a parent does not have a good expert, the odds are very, very slim that a parent would prevail at a due process hearing.

On the other hand, if the parents have a well-qualified expert, the school district is much more likely to try to reach a compromise.

A private assessment for a child with autism can be very expensive. Often times, the cost is $4000 to $5000, However, in almost all cases, I have been able to obtain an agreement from the public school to pay for the independent educational assessment. Why? Schools rarely have a qualified expert on staff that can appropriately assess the child.

Finally, sometimes a special education attorney can be helpful by advising the parent that the case is weak and it would not be a good investment to pursue the matter. Although this can be hard for parent to swallow, it is much worse to spend thousands of dollars and receive little or nothing in return.

What is the typical cost of attorneys' fees? How is payment arranged?

Attorneys have many different kinds of attorneys' fee arrangements. Generally, a specific fee amount is not set for entire case unless it is a very simple case. The amount of attorneys' fees depends on the complexity of the case and the strength of the case. Our firm generally charges a set fee for the initial consultation. It is not uncommon for the initial consultation to take place by telephone. At the initial consultation, the parent is advised as to what steps can be taken to improve the child's program and/or services.

If a due process request is likely, our firm often provides the client with a maximum attorneys' fee amount for each step of the process - initial consultation, follow up advice, filing of a due process complaint, resolution meeting, mediation, and the finally for the due process trial. (It is rare that a case actually goes to hearing.) Some firms charge strictly on an hourly basis.

What can parents do to keep the special education legal cost down?

There are many things a parent can do to improve the program and services that are offered by the school district with little cost. In a nutshell, a parent can keep the costs down by knowing their legal rights, having a good expert, and occasionally seeking advice from an attorney when an impasse is reached.

The first thing that a parent should do is to become well educated in their child's legal rights.

In short, to keep the costs down, a parent should:

1. Become self educated in special education law.
2. Become self educated in the possible appropriate teaching methodologies for their child.
3. If appropriate, have a private expert perform an independent educational evaluation to advise the school district and the parent as to what the appropriate program and services, teaching methodologies, qualifications of personnel, classroom environment etc. should be provided to the child. A free independent educational evaluation must be provided to the parent if the school district's assessment was inappropriate in some regard.
4. Plan ahead. Keep good records and have a special education calendar. Make a habit of writing letters and attaching a written notice of "Parent Concerns" to IEPs.

David A. Sherman, is a special education attorney and the author of Autism: Asserting Your Child's Right to a Special Education.