A Parent’s Perspective: Pros and Cons of Bringing a Lawyer to the IEP Meeting
Legal representation: Just thinking about it seems so overwhelming and off-putting for many parents. How bad does it really have to be before you decide that you need the help of an attorney to hold your hand (both literally and figuratively) through the IEP process? Well, I can tell you from experience that it has to be pretty awful to go to that extreme. I don’t think any parent really wants to believe they can’t get what their child actually needs from the school district without legal representation, but it’s sometimes the case.
When I started the IEP process for my daughter without legal representation, I got the shock of a lifetime. I felt harassed and made to feel like I didn’t know what would be best for my daughter. What was worse was that the school district could make decisions that I might not even agree with. All of this could and would happen even though I had documentation from a neuropsychologist outlining exactly what educational accommodations my daughter needed to succeed in school. I thought it would have been fairly easy to get these accommodations in place…Well, it turned out I was very naïve initially. I learned very quickly and painfully that I could trust no one within the school district to have the same level of dedication to supporting my daughter that I did as her parent.
I realized that I needed the support of an attorney (and not my husband, who happens to be an attorney, but doesn’t happen to practice education law). I needed a strong, dynamic, no-nonsense attorney who could teach me how to listen, know what was possible and reasonable to expect and calm me down when I could not get everything for my daughter I had hoped I could. Having legal counsel gave me the chance to review all documents the school might give me before a meeting (although they rarely provided anything in advance). But the attorney and I did review what my daughter’s doctor recommended, so I knew what we were requesting. Our attorney sat between my husband and me. She quite literally had to be there for me to lean on and had to explain what the pupil personnel director was offering in the way of accommodations.
When you make the decision to bring counsel, you must inform the school district ahead of time because they will then bring their legal counsel to rebut yours. As a parent, it can be quite frightening. In my experience, the atmosphere does seem a lot more caustic when there are attorneys in the room. But that does not mean you shouldn’t bring one. It’s no picnic without one either! For me, there really was no question that I was going to live with the anxiety of an unpleasant experience for my daughter’s sake.
During an IEP meeting with legal representation, the attorneys joust legal points—your child is or is not entitled to certain educational accommodations. It’s not set in stone, there is no recipe, and they definitely battle. I found that the words they used were often jargon and had to ultimately be explained to me by my attorney. After many such meetings, I got used to the language and the tenor of the atmosphere in the room and learned to expect it. I watched the discomfort on the teachers faces as they watched this scene unfold.
I found that the strongest pro to having legal representation is that I was able to get more than I would have if I went it alone. Education lawyers are experts on what your child is entitled to because it is their job to know and understand the law. As parents, we can (and should!) become highly informed advocates for our children, but we just cannot have the same level of expertise education lawyers do. I also found that I learned how to advocate for my daughter from my attorney. After a while, I was able to go to these meetings with my daughter alone, and she and I could advocate quite well. If we were unsure, we made sure not to agree to sign paperwork and scheduled a follow-up meeting. We were in control, mostly. We had the strength and knowledge to walk out and consult our attorney by phone by the time she was in 10th–11th grade. With time, we gained confidence and a better understanding of our rights.
Of course, bringing legal counsel had some obvious cons. As I described previously, it made the meeting even more contentious than it already was. Having lawyers in the room escalated the meeting to a whole other level of importance, and the stress level rose for everyone—it was truly palpable when you walked through the door.
Another major con to considering legal representation is the financial aspect of this process. It is expensive from the very beginning when the attorney accepts your child's case and you sign a retainer fee, to each time you speak on the phone and go to a meeting. There are education attorneys who are willing to work on a pro-bono or sliding scale fee basis. Contact your local Parent Training Information Center, bar association, or the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPPA) for more information.
If you have a school district that you feel will listen to what you believe are your child’s needs, and have proven to do so, then I would go without an attorney. (But remember that if they do something you don’t agree with and don’t think is in your child’s best interest, you always have the right to bring legal representation.) The old adage “you get more with honey than you get with vinegar” may be true in this situation. Avoiding the contentious situation of bringing an attorney may allow you to have better overall relationships with administrators and teachers, and this can definitely benefit your child. I think my daughter would have likely felt more supported by the district if there were less or no fighting for the accommodations she needed.
I believe each family must decide what is best for their child. There is no easy way to walk into an IEP meeting. Whether you bring legal representation or not, you must know your legal rights. If you feel having legal representation is necessary, I would not hesitate to bring counsel. It may be difficult, but it will help you get your child what she needs—and that’s what really matters.
Ellyn Levy is a Speech-Language Pathologist, and supervisor of adult and pediatric speech pathology at a large NYC hospital. She is the parent of two adult children who, along with her husband, are the center of her universe. Her daughter had learning challenges from the time she was a young child. Ellyn has always believed that this fact has helped her relate more easily to the parents of the children she treats in her practice.