By Jeffrey L. Forte, Esq. – Special Education Attorney & Certified Child Advocate
Regardless of the area of law, all attorneys must meet with a prospective client in what is commonly referred to as “the initial legal consultation.” This critical meeting is the first meeting that is held between you, the potential new client, and the potential attorney. As a practical matter, I use the term “potential” because you are in essence both checking each other out and mutually gathering information and advice that can help with your potential case. The process of the initial legal consultation also helps both the potential client and attorney decide whether or not they legally and ethically want to move forward and work together by establishing an official attorney-client relationship.
Regardless of how formal or informal the initial legal consultation may be, it is critically important that both the potential client and the potential attorney come fully prepared in order to make the best use of your time (and money) together.
Below are find my recommendations for parents who have never met with a special education attorney before but are planning to do so. Following my tips will maximize your valued time when meeting with an experienced special education attorney.
- FILL OUT AND RETURN YOUR CLIENT QUESTIONNAIRE & DOCUMENTS IN A TIMELY MANNER.
As a potential new client of the Forte Law Group LLC, I take time to thoroughly prepare for all initial legal consultations by reviewing your client questionnaire form and all the documents you send to my office in advance of our first meeting. This helps me to evaluate your potential claims, determine any statute of limitations and to conduct a preliminary case evaluation of potential claims and remedies for you. Your time with me will be most productive if you fill the questionnaire out fully and send your child’s records to my office in a timely matter before the initial legal consultation.
- DO LOOK THROUGH THE INFORMATION ON OUR WEBSITE.
The information provided on the Forte Law Group website intended to answer some of the basic questions parents commonly have when they come in for an initial legal consultation. It should not be construed as legal advice, because it does not account for the technicalities that may come into play for your child’s particular situation. It should, however, give you a feel for the basic vocabulary used in the area of special education law and also provide you with a listing of the recent results have achieved for the many families I represent throughout Connecticut. Many of my blogs also address child special education issues and provide an understanding of the progression of different types of special education cases from PPT meetings to mediation and due process litigation. Moreover, the tips and information we provide on our website are FREE, so we don’t want you to pay for the time it would take for us to explain it to you!
- HAVE A WRITTEN LIST OF QUESTIONS TO WHICH YOU CAN REFER TO.
Just as you would do before going to a PPT meeting, you should write down any questions you have so that you do not forget to ask them. I encourage you to write down a list of questions you have for me so you can refer to the list during the initial legal consultation. If your loved ones and anyone else you trust have specific questions, write those down in advance as well. Just trust me on this one: you will not be able to concentrate on the wealth of information I provide you with during the initial legal consultation if you are thinking of your next question!
- BRING OR FORWARD COPIES OF ALL THE DOCUMENTS YOU HAVE THAT ARE RELEVANT TO YOUR CHILD’S EDUCATION.
Often time your child’s education records that thought meant nothing to you could mean everything to me best advocating for your child. If you have copies of your child’s evaluations, assessments, progress reports and the like, please bring them in or forward them to us so we can review them during your appointment. Sometimes these your child’s records can explain the causes of action and potential claims better than you, the potential client, can!
- BE READY TO TAKE A FEW NOTES.
It can be difficult to remember what you discussed with me days or even weeks later when the situation arises again. My office and I encourage all potential new clients to take a few notes on important discussion topics during the initial legal consultation, so they have something to jog their memory later. Additionally, there may be follow-up information or documents we need you to obtain before we can take the next step, and it is always helpful to have those type of instructions written down.
- ADULT DECISIONS REQUIRE ADULT ATTENDANCE, DO EXPECT YOUR FAMILY MEMBERS TO SIT IN THE WAITING AREA DURING YOUR APPOINTMENT.
Given that your child’s education is a joint and mutual parental decision, it is important that both parents (or the parent with educational decision-making authority if separated or divorced) personally attend the initial legal consultation. For parents that are divorced, please refer to my published law article, Divorce and Special Education: A Primer For Family Law Attorneys and Divorced Parents of a Child with a Disability.
I recommend that you confer with your trusted loved ones before going into the initial consultation so that you are able to get answers to their questions. Due to the current Coronavirus pandemic, our practice also offers virtual video appointments.
- THE INITIAL LEGAL CONSULTATION IS MORE OR LESS ABOUT ONE HOUR.
Although my office schedules each initial legal consultation for one hour, your actual appointment may technically last more or less than one hour. It depends on the complexity of your situation and how much information you were able to have organized before your initial consultation with me. Either way, you will leave the initial legal consultation with a proposed strategy in mind. Thus, it is to your advantage to come fully prepared (by following the above tips, of course!) to discuss your situation.
- HOW THE SAUSAGE IS MADE: WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS AT THE ATTORNEY-CLIENT INITIAL LEGAL CONSULTATION.
I will take time to understand your child’s situation, develop your legal claim(s), and determine with you what our realistic legal strategy and remedies should be to resolve your child’s education claims to the fullest extent available by law. I will patiently and thoroughly take time to answer your questions, separate legal myths from legal facts, and otherwise, ease your worries about the unknown. I provide advice and explanations tailored to your child’s situation that stems from my years of experience, education, and specialized training. I promise to guide our clients with straight-talk and compassion. You may not hear what you expected, or what you want to hear, but we won’t hide the legal realities of your case from you. Instead, we face the realities of your case head-on. I often ask potential new clients what is the end result that you wish to seek for your child and sometimes seek a solution around the law rather than through the law to achieve the right result without the litigation fight or emotional toll on your family.
Practically speaking, we offer both virtual consultations and in-office consultations. And did I mention we have coffee? All office visitors can enjoy a fresh coffee from our K-cup coffee machine, which we keep stocked with a wide variety of coffees for you to try. We also have tea and bottled water for those who don’t need the extra caffeine, though!
- TO RETAIN OR NOT TO RETAIN, THAT IS THE QUESTION.
Meeting with me for the initial legal consultation does not mean you are required to hire me as your lawyer to represent you. Indeed, hiring an attorney may not be appropriate for your situation. Parents frequently come in for an initial consultation with questions about their child’s education and end up not needing to hire a special education lawyer!
The decision is always yours to make at any point in time. However, you should expect an experienced special education attorney to present to you a retainer amount, a retainer agreement, and a proposed legal strategy towards the end of the initial legal consultation.
- OK, HOW MUCH? WELL, THAT DEPENDS ON THE FACTS OF THE CASE AND THE OUTCOME YOU ARE SEEKING.
One of my favorite famous quotes that I believe helps clients better understand the importance of the attorney-client relationship is from Warren Buffet, that says “Price is what you pay; value is what you get.”
At Forte Law Group your legal retainer amount is based on several factors some of which include the anticipated level and scope of the legal engagement, the forecasted amount of time needed to investigate and research your claims, and the complexity of your case. The retainer amount will be an up-front, sum of money that will be deposited into my law firm’s trust account from which our attorneys and staff members will bill their time against at their hourly rates. Your retainer money is kept in a separate client trust account and only transferred to our operating account when it is earned by our firm doing work on your case. We do accept hybrid payment plans as well, such as monthly fees for legal consultation work, and also “cap” our fees for mediation and due process litigation so families can budget their expenses. Often times a parent may very well need to tap into their child’s college or trust fund now in order to ensure their child will be able to successfully attend college in the future or in certain circumstances plan for their future needs now in order to achieve some level of independence or residential/group home support.
Additionally, the retainer amount is not to be confused with our estimation of the total cost of achieving a resolution to your situation. It is very likely that the retainer amount will not cover the total cost of your case. What I can tell you about the total cost of our representation is that frequently, and especially in special education litigation cases, the total cost will depend on how irrational the opposing party is. But, if your case costs less than the retainer amount, your unused money will be returned to you at the conclusion of the attorney-client relationship, which is almost always established with me after potential new clients meet me with at the initial legal consultation.