Advocate or Attorney?

By Amber Mintz

There are many differences between an attorney and an advocate. The primary one is that an attorney is the only one qualified to give you legal advice. An advocate, even a highly experienced one, can not offer legal advice, but advocates, who generally cost less, may be able to resolve your issue without an attorney.

Yet hiring an attorney is a worthwhile investment in protecting your child's rights. So, to make the most of your time and money, you want to think about the types of issues for which you want to retain an attorney versus issues for which you might call a seasoned, experienced advocate.

Four principles to consider:

The first rule of holes: when you're in one, stop digging. (Molly Ivins)

For non-crisis events, an advocate can help you address minor issues before they grow, and will know when it is time to refer you to an attorney. Bad things that should prompt you to call an attorney directly would be your child being arrested; when your district files a Due Process Hearing request against you; if your child has been hurt, restrained or secluded while in school (such as in a ‘time-out' room); when you have been threatened or misled by school officials; and/or if your child is at risk of physical harm at school (from bullying or poor supervision.)

Don't hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting; but never hit softly (T. Roosevelt)

A family with an attorney at an IEP meeting tends to focus the meeting on the crisis problems. The pesky, persistent problems often remain. However, those pesky issues are often what frustrate parents the most. For these issues, an advocate who has experience with your district may be a good option to consider.

Change is inevitable - except from a vending machine. (Robert C. Gallagher)

An attorney will give you the opportunity to resolve major issues through Due Process litigation if needed, or in an IEP. This can be valuable to clear log-jams that allow unresolved problems to grow. But, after they are resolved, and between meetings, an advocate can help you rebuild an effective relationship with your district.

Obstacles are things a person sees when he takes his eyes off his goal. (E. Cossman)

Your child has at least twelve years in the public school system. There is much to be done, and many priorities to make and goals to meet. An advocate can help you keep your eyes on the goal and build a collaborative working relationship with your district. An advocate can help you practice effective communication and negotiation skills outside IEP meetings, skills that make the special educational process more productive and your child's educational career outcome goals possible.

Amber Mintz, an experienced Parent Advocate and can be reached at: or (610) 927-9904.