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  • Writer's pictureGina Wurfel

Disability Representation: Should I hire an attorney or an advocate?

We often hear questions about whether to use a special education advocate vs an attorney for navigating the special education system. The answer really depends on your desired end result.

If you are ready to be done with the school district and want to go to court over your child’s needs not being met, then an attorney is the right choice. Attorneys specializing in special education (or education law at all) can be challenging to find and quite expensive. However, an attorney is definitely the right choice for any court proceeding.

If, however, all you need is guidance and support in asking the school district for additional evaluations, interventions, specially designed instruction, or other aspects of the IEP or 504 process, then an advocate may be a better choice. Not only are they less expensive than an attorney, but they usually have the lived experience of being in your shoes as well. They also often have connections to additional supportive services that can benefit your child. Attorneys are focused on litigation or settlement, whereas an advocate is more holistic in their approach.

What is the difference between a special education advocate and an attorney?

A special education advocate is someone who provides support and guidance to parents of children with disabilities, helping them navigate the special education system, understand their rights, and ensure their child receives appropriate services. On the other hand, a special education attorney is a legal professional who can represent parents in legal matters related to special education, such as filing due process complaints or representing them in hearings. While both advocate and attorney aim to support families with special needs, an attorney has legal training and can engage in legal proceedings on behalf of the parents if necessary.

If you're dealing with issues related to your child's special education needs, consider starting with a special education advocate. Advocates can provide valuable guidance, help you understand the educational system, and work collaboratively with schools to address concerns. If the situation becomes legally complex or if you need representation in a formal legal proceeding, then consulting with a special education attorney might be appropriate. In many cases, advocates and attorneys can work together to provide comprehensive support for families with special needs.

The success rate of families in special education due process hearings can vary widely and is influenced by numerous factors. In general across the United States, the success rate of families using an attorney is around 30%. In families not using an Attorney (“pro se”) the success rate drops to around 10%. In our home based state of Virginia, due process rarely ever goes in favor of the student or family, with an overall state success rate of under 2%.

Due process hearings end very much in favor of school districts, even with specialized representation. Success rates may depend on the specific circumstances of each case, the evidence presented, the quality of legal representation, and the relevant laws in the jurisdiction. It's important to note that many cases are resolved through negotiation or mediation before reaching a due process hearing.

For precise and up-to-date information on success rates, you may want to consult legal databases, local education agencies, or organizations specializing in special education advocacy. Additionally, seeking guidance from an experienced special education advocate or attorney can provide insights into the potential outcomes based on the details of your specific situation.

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