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Finding the Right Special Education Advocate

Last week, The Washington Post ran a story about Howard Deiner, a lawyer recently convicted of unauthorized practice of law in special education cases.

Despite having his law license suspended in the District of Columbia, and not having a license to practice law in Virginia at all, parents said Deiner represented himself as a licensed attorney with an expertise in special education law, a thorny legal area often fraught with emotion for parents. But after getting paid fees of $285 an hour, parents said Deiner provided poor representation, on one occasion not even speaking during a due process hearing. An earlier Post story written in April provides even more details of the situation.

After reading those stories, I chatted with Pete Wright, a Virginia special education attorney and the blogger behind the website Wrightslaw, which offers a wealth of resources for parents of children with disabilities. Pete was instrumental in bringing attention to Deiner's misdeeds. I also talked with Denise Marshall, the executive director of the Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys, an umbrella organization for special education lawyers.

My question for both of them: How can parents protect themselves, and find adequate representation in special education cases?

Denise pointed first to COPAA's own resources, guidelines for choosing an attorney and guidelines for choosing an advocate. Nonlawyer advocates can be useful in helping parents get the educational services they need.

She also added that parents can check with the bar associations in various states to make sure the attorney is actually licensed to practice. Also, parents should ask for references and talk to other parents to get others' assessment of an lawyer's work.

Pete also mentioned using other parents as resources, and said that parents shouldn't go with the first name they hear. Collect two or even three names, he said, though he acknowledged that this may be difficult in areas where there aren't a lot of special education lawyers.

He also said that parents can glean lawyers' names from looking at past due process cases, which is also a good way to see how a lawyer handled a case. It was news to me that due process hearing results were easy to find, but sure enough, after doing a quick check of education department websites for Maryland, Virginia, D.C., Florida and Michigan (places where I've lived or worked), I easily found listings of recent decisions just by going to the state education department website and searching under "due process."

In many of these hearings, the parents represented themselves. But in a quick click-through, I did find some cases where parents had outside representation and the names of the lawyers were listed.

Finally, Pete recommended steering clear of lawyers who seem to be emotionally invested in the case. That seems paradoxical—we all want our advocates to care, right? And Deiner's clients said he often mentioned his own disabled son. But Pete said that the lawyer who "froths at the mouth" may be blinded to solutions other than due process.

Both Denise and Pete stressed that a case like Deiner's is rare. But they've both offered some good suggestions that parents can use to protect themselves from the occasional bad apple.

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