The simple truth is that parents on balance achieve better results when they are working with an attorney. Of course, there are notable exceptions such as the very able and courageous parents in the Winkleman case. Nevertheless, especially in the current environment which seems more charged and polarized attorney help can be critical. The following is my distilled wisdom on how to make the most out of attorney representation and strategic approaches to working with an attorney:
1. Set clearly prioritized goals and defined solutions. I often state to clients and to school people "if you are going to define the problem, you must also define the solution." One of the biggest problems that wastes a lot of time and money is when the client has no clearly defined agenda and has no thoughts as to solutions. Raw emotion without practical goals is not a formula for successful advocacy. Frequently, I ask clients "what would make you feel like you have gotten some sense of justice?" I can then tell them if my role has a reasonable possibility of achieving the desired outcome before they spend their money.
2. No shoe boxes please--clients that drop 10 pounds of paper all shoved into a shoebox are off to a bad start. Take the time to organize, remove duplicate copies of IEPs and other documents and put it into a priority order. Not only will you save money when your attorney does not wade through useless duplicates, the compelling nature of your case will come through loud and clear to your attorney. [Parents should also insist that their copy of the IEP and related documents are readable.]
3. Lawyers charge for time--if you ask a lawyer to make a house call you will likely get charged for that time. I recently had a client who stated she did not understand that each time she demanded that I come to her house she was incurring charges, even though I had told her I charge for my time including these house calls. I am not sure how she did not understand that fact, but she insisted that she did not. Here is a little trick that helps keep things manageable for both attorneys and clients--email and faxes for simple questions work great and tend to keep a lid on time. Telephone conferences are essential, but sometimes things can get chatty resulting in time not being spent effectively.
4. It is not just the principle of the matter that counts--I have had many clients come to me and state that they do not care about the outcome of the case for their child but are pursuing the case for the principle and to benefit future generations of children coming through the district. I think these are wonderful and lofty ideals, and I sincerely applaud such idealism. However, at the core of every case there must be the potential for a meaningful benefit for your child. Pursing schools is hard and taxing work. In my experience parents will have a very difficult time sustaining the effort if the only goal is an abstract principle or indirect benefit. Principle coupled up with the potential tangible benefit to your child, provides the necessary motivation to see the case to fruition.
5. IEPs are not morality plays. Many parents, myself [as a parent] included, have viewed special education advocacy, at times, as a struggle of good against evil. This thought process left unchecked can overtake a rational view of the objectives of the case. Statements like--"even if I get those service minutes I came for, it will not be enough until that evil staff member is fired." If the case objectives have been achieved then move on, even if removal of an incompetent or vile staff member has not been accomplished. Firing as an objective of special education advocacy almost always is not a realistic outcome. There certainly is room to lobby and petition for staff removal, but let that not overtake the original purpose of the case.
6. Nuts and bolts--ask for a retainer agreement so both sides expressly know what is the scope of the relationship and what is expected of both sides. Ask for monthly billing so you know where you stand before the bill gets out of hand. Insist on being copied on all emails, letters and documents that go out to the school district. Check the listservs for the reputation of the attorney. It is not uncommon to have a few disgruntled former clients, but if there is a clear pattern, keep looking. Good sources for finding an attorney are at wrightslaw.com [Yellow Pages] and copaa.org. There are not an abundance of lawyers who do special education advocacy, so be wary of the attorney who is willing to "give it a try."
The capsule summary is get organized, define realistic goals and solutions, keep emotions in check and harness attorney time to your advantage. Following these essentials will increase the probability for a satisfactory attorney-client working relationship to achieve a good outcome.