10 Tips for Starting a Special Education Law Practice, Part VII

Published on May 17, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

The stakes are incredibly high when one is representing the interests of children with special education needs.  While I think it is a good idea to weigh the “pros and cons” of entering any field of practice, or any profession for that matter, my personal belief is that this particular calling requires more consideration, research and training than one gets in law school.  This is especially true, since most law schools do not even offer a course on special education law.

If you are considering becoming a parents’ attorney under the IDEA, here are the most important things I would recommend you do:

Tip #7.  Hire good staff

I know, it seems like this would go without saying for any business, let alone law firm.  But if you are going to start or grow your special education law office, there are additional considerations that need to be made when hiring.  I would recommend that, if you possibly can, you hire both an administrative assistant and also a part-time book keeper.  If you can only afford one, then start with an administrative assistant who can help with the book keeping.

Since the administrative assistant should be the person answering the phones and talking with parents of children with special needs, there are some attributes of this person that I have come to realize are absolutely necessary.

The person answering the phone and talking to current and prospective clients should actually care about kids with special education needs.

I really do think this is the most important quality in your administrative assistant, although obviously not the only requirement.  Many of the parents who call my office do so in tears.  Some have very recently gotten the diagnosis that their child has a severe disability and are still processing that information.  Some have just left a very contentious IEP meeting where they feel their concerns about the special education program were ignored.  Most have been battling with their school district for years, all the while trying to handle the day to day stresses of raising a child with special needs.

Many of my clients are overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, frustrated, and fed up with having to fight both their child’s disability and their school district.  When they are to the point where they have to call a special education lawyer, the last thing they want is to encounter yet another person who doesn’t really seem to care about what they are going through.  Make sure your assistant does, and genuinely does, because believe me, a parent can tell.

Hire a book keeper who can generate bills on at least a monthly basis for your clients.

Many attorneys who decide to provide legal services for children with disabilities aer either solo practitioners or work for a very small law office.  As a result, they are likely to be very busy, without the formal infrastructure and supports which larger firms often offer.  The inclination is to try to have as little overhead as possible, so it can be very tempting to just try to do it all yourself.

For many years I did not have a book keeper because I thought I couldn’t afford it.  What a mistake that was!  I have found that having a book keeper has dramatically increased how often my clients pay me.  In addition, it has reduced some problems with attorney client communication.

Think about it, wouldn’t you rather get a bill for $200 than a bill for $2000?  Wouldn’t you be more likely to pay it?

This is part of what a book keeper can provide.  Instead of letting months go by before you can devote the time to sending out at bill, by which point it is likely to be very large, your clients can get a monthly or bimonthly accounting on their case.  This is also much more fair to the parents, who can budget accordingly and can get a sense of how certain aspects of their case consume more time than others.

In addition, if nothing is happening on a particular file, for whatever reason (you’re waiting on an upcoming Mediation date, etc.), your clients will be made well aware that there is not activity because they will get a statement reflecting that.

In addition, having a book keeper will come in handy when you prevail in a case and need to submit an Application for Attorneys’ Fees to a judge.

As I’ve noted earlier in the series, the IDEA provides fee shifting for parents who prevail in Due Process Hearings: (http://connecticutspecialeducationlawyer.com/special-ed-attorneys/10-tips-for-starting-a-special-education-law-practice-part-vi/).  When you win, you want to be able to very quickly contact the school district’s lawyer to inform them what the attorneys’ fees are in the case.  If your book keeper has been generating regular statements on the case, this won’t be an onerous task.

You keep contemporaneous track of your time, but if that isn’t getting put into a bill, you won’t be getting paid for that time.

Having great staff can make or break any business, but if you are really interested in representing kids with special education needs, you will find that having a good team will keep you, and your clients, much happier.