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  Guidelines for choosing an Advocate or Attorney  




Many parents choose to use a special education advocate to support them in getting what their children need in special education. Nonlawyer advocates do not have a license to practice law, and they are not attorneys. They provide their services according to the laws of their state. Advocates are often professionals with training in special education and advocacy. They may or may not charge fees for
their services. (Advocates for Special Education uses the terms “special education advocate” and “advocate” to refer to individuals who advocate for parents and families, but are not attorneys.)

You can find advocates by using the "Find an Advocate or Attorney" on the website of the Advocates for Special Education, http://www.AdvocatesforSpecialEducation.com. You can also call your state’s Parent Training and Information Center, http://www.taalliance.org/Centers/index.htm, or inquire with local disabilities organizations. You can ask other parents and professionals in your area about advocates they have used or recommend.

Select a trained, experienced advocate.

Unlike attorneys, no certification authority exists to certify advocates at this time. However, many special education advocates have years of experience and training. When you interview an advocate, you should ask about their education and training. You should also ask whether the advocate stays current in the field by getting updated training and education through workshops, conferences, and continuing
education programs. Do not hesitate to ask for references from the advocate. You are the one making the hiring decision.

Select an advocate with special education experience.
Experienced advocates can often help you obtain the educational services your child needs. Advocates may have specific skills and knowledge about evaluations, various disabilities, IEPs and other educational negotiations, behavioral supports and discipline, document management, fact investigations, and other areas. They may have alternative dispute resolution skills, such as mediation and facilitation
skills. Advocates should be familiar with the local service providers, evaluators, local school districts and the options they offer, and local customs. They should know and understand IDEA and other laws/regulations affecting the education of students with disabilities. Ask your advocate about his or her experience and specific skills. You need to be an informed consumer and ask the questions that are important to you.

Select an advocate who understands your child.
You should expect an advocate to spend time visiting with your child. Each child is a unique human being and has individual educational needs. Your advocate should be able to explain to you how your child's disability will affect him or her at school. Advocates are not diagnosticians and they are not education evaluators. But, a working knowledge of your child's disability, or a willingness to become
educated about your child's disability, is a quality a good advocate should have.

Advocates and attorneys.

Nonlawyer advocates are not attorneys or members of the bar. Some advocates and paralegals are supervised by attorneys. Some work in forms or with public interest organizations. Others work independently in their own offices. You can ask an advocate if they work with an attorney. But, it is not necessary that a lawyer oversee an advocate, or that an advocate even have a relationship with an attorney. Many experienced advocates work completely on their own or with other advocates who are
not licensed attorneys. You should decide what you want in an advocate and what kind of assistance you need.

Select an advocate who understands his or her professional limits.

Professional advocates may give you legal information and help you negotiate and resolve disputes. But,they are not lawyers, and cannot give you the same type of legal advice as attorneys or act as your lawyer. An experienced, well-trained advocate should help you recognize when you should seek an attorney’s services. Should your next step be a due process hearing, you should check your state laws
regarding assistance from an advocate. In some states, nonlawyer advocates can represent parents in administrative due process hearings. In others, they cannot, and may only assist the parents. An advocate cannot represent you in state or federal court. If you are contemplating due process, you and your advocate should discuss your case. You should think about whether you need to hire an attorney
based on your individual situation and needs and the laws of your state. Ultimately, it is your responsibility to make this decision and you should make the decision you believe is most appropriate.

Questions you might ask to help make a hiring decision.
Being an informed consumer is important. These are some questions you might ask as you decide whether to hire an advocate.

• What is the advocate’s special education advocacy experience? Does he/she have experience in situations similar to yours? Has he/she worked with this school district or similar ones?
• How does the advocate believe your situation should be handled? What is the estimated time
frame for completing the work? What will the advocate do?
• How will you be expected to assist and work with the advocate?
• How will you and the advocate keep each other informed about the case?
• What does the advocate charge and how will you be billed? How are fees determined? Will you
be billed on a hourly or flat basis? What is the total estimated fee?
• Who keeps the copies of your child's records at the advocate's place of business, and how your
child's files will be maintained and returned to you when you need them?
Parents play a vital role in every special education matter. Advocates can give you advice and opinions
based upon their training and experience, but you--the parent--must make all of the final decisions about
your child. After meeting with the advocate ask yourself if you:
• Will be comfortable working closely with this person
• Are confident the advocate has the experience and skill to handle your case
• Understand the advocate's explanation of what your case involves
• Understand the proposed fee agreement

Advocates for Special Education offer these suggestions as a public service to
parents of children with disabilities. They are not intended as legal advice or a legal opinion. The Advocates for Special Education Guidelines incorporate some information based in part on information published by the Illinois
Attorney General's office.


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6th Annual Illinois Statewide Transition Conference

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If you have a child with a disability, you may find yourself in circumstances in which you require assistance in securing services to meet your child’s educational needs. In such circumstances, you may turn to an attorney for assistance. Below are some basic guidelines to assist you in selecting an attorney who will be helpful to you.

Select an attorney with special education expertise.
Special education is a complex area of the law, and one not generally taught in law school. Attorneys who assist parents in this field should be well-versed on the various federal and state laws and regulations, as well as the current special education cases coming from the courts.

Select an attorney with special education experience.
The practice of special education can involve simple negotiations, mediation, administrative hearings (called "due process hearings"), or court hearings. Attorneys who assist parents in this field should have experience with all of these areas or at least be able to explain the scope of their special education experience.

Ask how the attorney charges for his/her work.
Special education practice can range from public service attorneys who work for free or at low cost to eligible families to those in private practice who charge for their work. Be sure you understand and get in writing a statement of any and all retainers, hourly fees, or flat fees for representation.

Understand your role as parents.
Attorneys can advise you on the status of the law and about expected outcomes of your case based upon an analysis of the facts and the law. However, you remain the ultimate decision maker with regard to your child’s educational planning. You should also get regular updates from the attorney (preferably in writing) as to the status of the case. The attorney should be reasonably available to answer your questions and clarify issues.

Find out if the attorney has support personnel who will be assisting him/her.
Attorneys can be alone in the representation of families (called "solo practice") or can practice with other attorneys or paraprofessionals. If you are likely to come in contact with or get billed for such other people, you should understand this person’s role in the case. If the attorney is using a paraprofessional as a lay advocate, you should understand how closely the attorney will supervise this paraprofessional.

Understand how long it may take to resolve the matter.
In some cases, attorneys can negotiate speedy resolutions for their clients; in others, it may take months to reach a resolution. Discuss with your attorney the time frame he/she anticipates in resolving your specific concerns. The attorney should be able to describe the various dispute resolution tactics (negotiation, mediation, due process, or state monitoring) that could apply in your particular case and a reasonable time frame for each.

Select an attorney who understands your child.
Each child with a disability is unique and presents unique educational concerns. Make sure you are confident that your attorney understands the underlying disability and how it manifests itself in your child. If a particular type of disability is new to an attorney, he/she should be willing to educate himself/herself in its particulars.


Source of Guidleine information:
The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc. , www.COPAA.org


The information provided by Advocates for Special Education on this Website is subject to change based upon the availability of new laws, caselaw, interpretations, research, and other developments in the field.

Advocates for Special Education does not endorse, recommend, or make representations with respect to any legal interpretations, research, services, programs, medications, products, or treatments that may be referenced on the Website.

The material provided here is designed for educational and informational purposes only. Advocates for Special Education is not rendering legal or other advice or recommendations. You should not rely on any information on the website to replace consultations with qualified legal, educational, health care or other professionals to meet your individual needs.

Reference to any program, service, treatment or therapy option is not an official endorsement by Advocates for Special Education.