Do you need to hire a special education lawyer in Connecticut for your child, but you don’t know where to start?
Join me as we briefly discuss and learn the importance of hiring the right Connecticut special education attorney for you and your child with a disability.
Whether you live in Fairfield County, Middlesex County, Hartford County or elsewhere in Connecticut, hiring the right special education lawyer is a critical decision. In this video and article below, let us briefly walk you through what you should look for.
Thinking of Hiring a Connecticut Special Education Attorney for your Child?
If you and your family are thinking of hiring a special education lawyer and live in Connecticut, you are in luck. Connecticut has a small, but very strong and experienced group of parent special education attorneys. We are a tight knit, collaborative group of legal professionals with a profound desire to help families of children with special needs. Many of us, in fact, are parents of a child with a disability ourselves. My youngest son is on an IEP for dyslexia.
The most important decision is deciding which Connecticut special education attorney is right for you and your child. Many of us have different styles, approaches, and connections. So, finding (a) the right fit for you (b) that suits your child’s needs, (c) coupled with the experience and credibility level of the right attorney is critical to advance your child’s case. I will more fully answer this question in just a moment, but first let’s briefly understand the special education process here in Connecticut.
What is the Special Education Process Like in CT?
Briefly speaking, the special education process should “typically” “follow these steps:
- Step One – The parent or a teacher notices a deficit, delay or challenge in your child’s learning process and refers your child for initial eligibility for special education.
- Step Two – Your child is “comprehensively” evaluated by a team of clinical professionals and educators within your local school district to address each of your child’s deficits and delays. The evaluations should include, among other things, academic, cognitive, psychological, behavioral, social, and emotional assessments, as well as possible literacy, speech/language, psychiatric, occupational, and/or physical assessments as deemed necessary.
- Step Three – Your child is then identified and diagnosed with a disability that impacts your child’s access to his or her education.
- Step Four – A 504 plan or IEP is then developed for your child with specific and measurable goals and objectives to address your child’s challenges that are ambitiously appropriate.
The entire special education process is designed to be “collaborative” and “non-adversarial” in nature, meaning that you and your local school district team work together, as one team, to mutually develop an ambitiously appropriate educational plan and related services that are uniquely designed to help your child make meaningful progress year over year. The process is designed so that you and your local school district team do not need lawyers. Sounds simple and straightforward, right? Well, that’s not always the case. Perhaps that is even why you have stumbled across this law article.
Unfortunately, the reality is that the special education process does not always go smoothly, despite even the best intentions of some members of your child’s school team. There are flaws in its design. Oftentimes the special education process can be adversarial in nature. It may become adversarial when you ask for items such as an independent educational evaluation, increase in service hours, related services, a change in placement, paraprofessional support, OG or Wilson trained instruction, ABA services, ESY and the like and your local school district team denies your request. In other words, the school district team says “NO” to something that you, as a parent, feel is critically and clinically important to have on your child’s 504 plan or IEP. Even worse, you may not even get that far because your child may have been denied special education eligibility in the very first place. Sometimes, but not always, school districts take advantage of you, because the fact is that most parents do not know special education laws or the rights of their child with a disability.
This is the time to have a legal consultation with the right Connecticut special education attorney. You should hire a special attorney as soon as your local school district decides to become adversarial with you and challenges you by denying services or placement that you feel is appropriate for your child.
Should You Hire an Advocate Instead?
You may be asking yourself, why not just hire a special education advocate instead, or, just handle your child’s education yourself without an attorney or advocate. There’s an old saying about lawyers – “the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Because you are the parent of your child, it is nearly impossible for you not to be emotional and objective when it comes to the determination as to what constitutes a legally appropriate education for your child with a disability. You need the right attorney on your side that is going to zealously represent you and all of your child’s special educational interests – no matter what – to the fullest extent as mandated by the law. This is where the right Connecticut special education lawyer is important to have on your side.
Limitations & Scope of Advocates
Special education advocates serve a very important and helpful role for the services that they provide. As a special education attorney, I work with several well-respected, highly established professional special education advocates throughout Connecticut and often provide parents with referrals to those advocates and vice versa. If you decide to retain a special education parent advocate, you will want to research their experience, certifications and credentials. For example, did they complete COPAA SEAT, William & Mary Law School Institute of Special Education Advocacy Clinic, or have they taken a Wrightslaw advocacy training program? Have they shadowed a special education lawyer? Are they certified as a special education parent advocate? Certainly, the right special education advocate can help you prepare for an IEP meeting and attend the meeting with you in order to assist you with communicating your child’s needs. However, that is typically where an advocate’s services end. Anything more than helping you to prepare for or attending an IEP meeting can legally and ethically be considered Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL). If a non-attorney advocate that is not licensed and admitted to practice law within Connecticut provides you with legal advice or assists you with preparing for mediation, filing for due process or reviews a settlement agreement, or anything that otherwise maybe considered “legal action,” the advocate is committing UPL. Experienced advocates know this and will refer you to a special education attorney at the appropriate time. Moreover, unlike lawyers, advocates are not legally or ethically required to take mandatory continuing legal education to keep informed and up to date on the latest laws and cases in special education.
A special education lawyer does not have the limitations that an advocate does. Thus, even if your advocate has done great work, which most that are certified and experienced do, it can often be discarded by districts and all the hard-earned dollars that you have invested may end up being for nothing in the long term. That is why I always recommend parents to have an initial legal consultation with a special education lawyer first in order to develop a strategic legal plan of action, which may or may not include collaboratively working with an experienced advocate as well.
While many advocates are excellent, in that they are certified, trained and experienced, or have substantial knowledge from being in the field of special education for years, special education attorneys are legally trained to understand special education legal procedure, rules of evidence, have knowledge of school district lawyers, state mediators, hearing officers and judges. Special education lawyers know how to conduct direct and cross-examination of witnesses, write legal briefs based on case law, know who, where and how to obtain critical expert evaluations and how to quickly and legally analyze FERPA documents, IEPs, evaluations, and legal discovery. Perhaps most importantly, the right special education attorney knows how to “preserve the record” at an IEP meeting for due process and/or federal court appeal. Attorney’s fees in special education due process cases are also often recoverable, while advocate fees are not. Thus, if you succeeded at due process, you may be entitled to receive all or some of your investment back. A comprehensive legal consultation with the right special education attorney will fully inform you about the strength of your case. Lastly and most importantly, you shouldn’t skimp on legal services when seeking to legally protect the civil rights of your child with a disability. You wouldn’t skimp on other services your child needs, (i.e, medical appointments, therapy, equipment) right?
Price vs. Value
A great colleague of mine, Christine Lai, Executive Director of Connecticut’s Special Education Legal Fund (“S.E.L.F”), recently wrote an excellent article about special education lawyers in the nutmeg state, entitled “A Parent’s Guide to Connecticut Special Attorneys.” Christine’s research found that special education attorneys in Connecticut charge anywhere from $250 to $450+ an hour. Alternatively, some Connecticut special education attorneys charge a flat fee for a certain period of time within the range of $5,000-$7,500 for a specific type of legal service. Some attorneys charge for an initial consultation, some do not. Mediation costs typically exceed $10,000 and due process hearings can cost north of $50,000 all in with attorney and expert fees. Regardless of a special education attorney’s hourly rate or flat fee charge, and various rates for mediation and/or due process, Warren Buffett said it best when he said: “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” There is another interesting article I recently read on Forbes by contributing writer Amy Rees Anderson, entitled “Nothing is More Expensive Than A Cheap Lawyer.” …The title speaks for itself.
Finding the Right Connecticut Special Education Attorney for You & Your Child – Ask Questions!
So how do you find the right special education lawyer for you and your child? First and foremost, personally go and meet with special education attorneys. Note, when meeting with a special education attorney, it is important to realize that it is a two-way street. Just like you are interviewing the attorney, the attorney should also be interviewing you. What I mean by this is the right special education attorney should be evaluating the strength and weaknesses of your child’s case from the moment you first call. What are the strengths (and weaknesses) of your child’s potential case? What is the end result that you are seeking for your child? What is your style like, compared to the style of the attorney you are seeking? What does the lawyer’s website say, does the lawyer even have a website? Has the attorney recently presented or published on recent developments in special education law? Does the lawyer currently serve on any non-profit boards? What community involvement does the lawyer have in the disability community? Has the attorney handled special education cases within your local school district? Does the attorney have previous experience in handling the type of disability that your child has? What software and systems does the attorney have in place to ensure your child’s confidential medical, psychological and education records remain confidential, encrypted and HIPPA compliant? Will the attorney you are interviewing with be handling your child’s case all the way through, or will parts of your child’s case be freelanced to another attorney or law firm associate and if so, who, where and why? What is does client availability look like for the attorney? Who answers the office phone? Does the attorney or law office staff immediately return your call and provide a straightforward answer? Does the attorney have law office staff? Does the attorney have an office? If not that’s okay, but where does the attorney typically meet with a new client? What technology does the attorney use for the benefit of client communication and exchange of information? Will the attorney provide you with a recent or past client reference? Does the attorney keep you fully informed on billing? Does the attorney have any online reviews? (For example, you can read and view my client reviews here: https://www.fortelawgroup.com/endorsements/). What type of professional relationship and reputation does the attorney have within your local school district and, more importantly, with the lawyer or law firm that represents your local school district? Will the attorney’s approach damage or mend you and your child’s relationship with your local school district? Are you seeking a lawyer with a litigious and aggressive approach right out of the gate that will draw blood first, or an attorney that is legally strategic, but not immediately combatant with your child’s school team? What experts does the attorney use and what results have those experts achieved for other children? Lastly, special education attorneys are after all people too, often with a family member of their own that may have a disability. Does the attorney have anything personally or professionally going on that may prevent or mitigate his or her fullest legal attention to your child’s special education case?
In summary, I strongly advise any and all parents of a child with a disability to have a comprehensive initial legal consultation with the right Connecticut special education lawyer first. The consultation should be scheduled the minute you believe your child’s school district is becoming adversarial with you or you believe your child is being denied the right to receive a free appropriate public education that your child is legally entitled to receive.
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