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Advocacy Group, Law Firm Team Up For Parents

Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the Boston office of the law firm DLA Piper have launched a partnership that will allow the firm's lawyers to provide representation for low-income parents at special education hearings and legal proceedings.

The law firm will also provide assistance to MAC in its advocacy efforts on behalf of children statewide.

For its first year, the firm has pledged 1,000 hours on behalf of the project, said Matt Iverson, a DLA Piper lawyer and one of the project's leaders.

What I found most interesting about this partnership is that the attorneys with DLA Piper are not going to just handle litigation, according to Tom Mela, the Children's Law Support Project director for the advocacy group. Most special education cases are settled long before the lawsuit stage.

Instead, the lawyers will be working with parents at the school level, before a dispute escalates. They will also litigate as necessary, but that's not expected to be their primary focus. "Most of the cases begin with, and end with, school-level advocacy," Mela told me.

Mela said his organization is training the lawyers in topics such as special education testing. Another lawyer shadowed Mela during an IEP meeting, to get a feel for that process. More training and shadowing opportunities are planned.

This partnership, which the firm refers to as a signature pro bono project, grew out of interactions between the advocacy group and the firm a few years ago. During that time, MAC referred a few cases to DLA Piper, but the signature project is ultimately expected to involve the entire staff of the Boston office in some capacity.

"It's hugely different now, because of [DLA Piper's] commitment," Mela said. And Iverson said that the work has been rewarding, if quite different from his normal work on banking regulations and land use matters.

"You can see a more direct impact," he said.

I've interviewed more than a few parents who have talked about how difficult is is to find adequate representation if they feel they need to challenge a school's educational decisions for their child with disabilities. More partnerships between advocacy organizations and law firms might be a way to create more expertise in this complicated area of the law.

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