Special Education Advocate vs. Attorney or IEP Coach. What's the Difference and Who's Best?
Your child has an IEP, 504 Plan, or you need one. Things aren't going well and you need help.
Do you hire a special education attorney, advocate, or IEP Coach? Let's explore their differences, what you need to look for, what it's worth, and who's best for your child.
First things first, you need to answer the following question.
1. Who Do You Need?
An attorney, advocate, and IEP Coach each bring particular expertise to the table. Not everyone will be the right fit for your needs. An expert developing an IEP may not be what you're looking for. Let's explore each of these roles so you can decide who's best for you and your child.
Special Education Attorney
Special education attorneys specialize in dispute resolution when it comes to the implementation and enforcement of FAPE. They are involved in due process filings, represent families or children during due process proceedings, attend resolution meetings, represent families at due process hearings, negotiate settlement agreements outside of the IDEA process, and are involved in civil lawsuits.
Special education attorneys are generally not involved in developing IEP plans. Most often, attorneys address enforcement and implementation disputes. They examine HOW to defend a family’s position with the appropriateness of FAPE. Attorneys can attend IEP meetings in a legal capacity but NOT as a member of the IEP team. If you choose to bring an attorney to your child's IEP/504 meeting, your school may require notice triggering a district attorney to attend on their behalf.
If you have a legal dispute with the school district, an attorney might be the right choice for you.
Unlike an attorney, advocates are educational consultants. They can be involved in informal meetings, mediation attendance, and requests, as well as file state Department of Education and Office of Civil Rights complaints. They work with families to develop and modify education plans. They can negotiate on your behalf when it comes to eligibility, placement and services concerns, ensure progress monitoring, attend meetings for general education students, and develop 504 Plans. Advocates do not represent families or students in a legal capacity.
As a consultant, advocates can also provide resources, review and request records, refer to expert evaluators, recommend specialists or service providers, request documentation, facilitate letter-writing, request IEEs, additional assessments, participate in mediation, and provide general clarity of various educational programs and services.
If you want specialized support or to file a state/OCR complaint, an advocate might be the best fit for you.
There is no set standard for an IEP Coach or educational advocates, for that matter. However, most coaches generally steer clear of filing complaints or mediation. Many act as an informal liaison between parents and schools. They explain the special education process and facilitate communication. IEP Coaches can also perform all the above job duties of an educational advocate in addition to mentoring and guiding families beyond the IEP process to improve HOW families advocate.
If you want navigational support understanding the journey, an IEP Coach might be the right fit for you.
2. What Do You Want?
Now that we've defined roles, it's time to move to the second question. What do you want? Federal and state laws place limits on certain legal actions. Read through the list to determine exactly what you want your attorney, advocate, or IEP Coach to do.
Attorneys represent families in negotiations. They can:
- write legal notices and letters
- create and submit legal complaints, protests, or documents
- give legal advice about your child’s rights
- conduct legal reviews of IEPs or 504 plans
- represent families in due process or state/federal court
IEP Advocates and IEP Coaches
Advocates and IEP coaches are educational consultants. They can:
- consult with others
- facilitate communication
- provide resources
- document interventions
- facilitate documentation
- attend IEP/504/school meetings
- write request letters or responses
- improve parent participation
- explain procedural safeguards
- provide suggestions on educational services
- offer disability-specific resources
- recommend outside providers
- refer to expert evaluations
- request an IEE
- request for student records
- request documentation before/after meetings
- request school-based evaluations
- explain Prior Written Notice (PWN/NOREP)
- review a student’s IEP or 504 plan and school records
On-demand IEP training at your fingertips
When it comes to finding the right fit, qualifications are key. Some may require specific licenses, while others operate without any set standard. Keep reading to make your next choice.
Attorneys are licensed within a state to practice law. They need to be a current member of their state bar. If you're considering hiring an attorney, you may want to contact the American Bar Association, or your state Bar Association to check whether your candidate is allowed to practice law in your area. Not all attorneys practice special education law. There are very few law training programs available. If you're considering hiring an attorney, inquire about their expertise in special education and/or 504 laws before moving forward.
Special education advocates and IEP Coaches
There are no specified qualifications to practice as a special education advocate or IEP Coach. This means you'll want to thoroughly explore the background and expertise when hiring an advocate or IEP Coach.
If you're looking for a qualified advocate, the Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys (COPAA) offers specialized advocacy training, through their rigorous SEAT™️program. In addition, a handful of programs offer national board certifications, such as National Special Education Advocacy Institute (NSEAI) and National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET).
3. What's It Worth?
Let's face it. It's difficult to put a price on helping your child. When they're struggling, it's easy to go all in before considering the options. However, you always have a choice and you know your child better than anyone else. Before deciding who you need and what you want, consider two factors: cost and worth.
When it comes to cost attorneys generally have a retainer, plus additional fees. Hourly rates range from $250-$800 or above. Contingency fees are around 35% with average retainers of $5000. Most attorneys practice within their region and/or preferred school districts. Fees can quickly escalate above $50,000 for due process or civil litigation depending on your region or state.
In contrast, advocates and IEP Coaches generally charge by the month or hour. After reviewing your records, hourly rates range from $50-$275 depending on their training, expertise, and educational background.
Filing a due process claim and going to court takes time. This means months of waiting and time away from family and work. Litigation can take a significant toll on the mental and physical health of your entire family. Generally, when due process initiates, a student's IEP or 504 Plan goes into "stay put" status. This means your child's educational plan, or lack thereof, will remain in limbo for months or sometimes years. Even if you prevail, your school will likely return to the table to develop a new assessment, IEP, or 504 Plan. The question to ask is, "Does the cost outweigh the benefits?"
4. What Do I Ask?
Just like hiring a specialist or contractor for your family, your interview should go both ways. This means even if you get a referral from a friend, is a good idea to ask questions. Not every attorney, advocate, or IEP Coach has the same experience with your child's needs or age and grade. In addition, it's important to ask if your candidates have experience working in your school district (despite any disagreements and/or due process cases). What's their availability and is there a wait list? Having little experience with your child's learning needs or unfamiliarity with their school district may be a red flag signaling the candidate isn't the best fit. Remember, who you hire works for you!
Want our checklist of suggested interview questions? Click 👉 to download our favorites.
Who's Best for My Child?
So, you've laid all the cards on the table. You know what type of professional you want, what you want them to do, and you've interviewed a list of candidates. Now it's time to ask yourself the hardest question. "Who's best for my child?"
The bottom line is, only you can make this decision. You've known your child the longest and will always be their best advocate.
Regardless of who you choose, make sure they have the right EXPERIENCE and EXPERTISE to match your child’s unique learning needs.
We Can Help
Have you made a decision? Want an advocate and an IEP Coach? Rise Educational Advocacy and Consulting can help! We're different. Rise supports you online with easy and affordable virtual training. We solve IEP and 504 challenges showing HOW to advocate smarter without stress. We work nationwide with all stakeholders to Build a Better IEP™️. Contact us to transform your child's education plan.