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A national survey released in May 2020 found that only 20% of parents whose child should be receiving special education services during coronavirus school shutdowns were actually receiving those services.

You have many reasons to look for a special education attorney to help you fight for your child’s rights. If you’re concerned about how much it might cost to hire a special ed lawyer, this guide will tell you what you need to know.

Find out what to expect in terms of fees and payments and learn why an attorney may be more affordable than you think.  

Types of Payment Structures

Special education attorneys can set their fees and payment structure in several ways. When you have an initial consultation with a lawyer, ask them to explain their fee schedule.

Upfront Payments

With an upfront payment plan, you’ll pay the fees as the lawyer completes work on your case. The attorney calculates how much you owe based on an hourly wage. Attorneys usually keep track of their time in fractions of an hour. For example, 1/10 of an hour would be 6-minute intervals.

Retainer Fee

A retaining or retention fee is a deposit you pay in advance. Lawyers usually base their retaining fee on their hourly rate multiplied by a certain number of hours. The lawyer uses this deposit as work progresses on your case.

If the final bill would be more than the retention fee you paid, the attorney will recover the additional money from a settlement with the district.

No Upfront Charges

In this type of payment structure, you pay nothing. The lawyer recovers all fees from a settlement with the district.

Sliding-scale Fees

Some attorneys charge their clients based on the client’s ability to pay. A sliding-scale fee can be an hourly rate or a flat fee. Lawyers often base their scale on the client’s income and family size as found in the Federal Poverty Guidelines.

If you’re concerned about your ability to pay an attorney, ask about sliding scale payments or other alternative arrangements.

Hourly Rates and Case Costs

Attorneys usually charge between $200 and $500 an hour. An average case takes 20 to 80 hours. The total fee depends on the complexity of the case and how far through the court system it goes.

Fees can range from a few thousand dollars to a hundred thousand dollars. The high end of the spectrum is rare. It represents cases that an attorney brings beyond the appellate court level.

The average cost of a case in California ranges from $8,000 to $10,000. A basic case may only cost between $3,000 and $5,000.

Fee Agreements

A fee agreement sets out the payment structure you agree to with your special education attorney. It specifies the type of legal services the attorney will provide and the responsibilities of you and the attorney to uphold the contract. California requires most fee agreements to be in writing.

A retainer agreement must fully explain how the attorney calculated the retainer. It should also state how the lawyer will work from the retaining fee.

A fee agreement should state whether you’ll be responsible for any additional expenses, like court costs or travel expenses.

The fee agreement may also describe the procedure for billing you. Many lawyers bill monthly. You receive a bill or a statement showing the costs for the previous month. If you paid a retaining fee, the statement will tell you how much of your deposit is left.

Be sure to read the fee agreement carefully. Ask the lawyer to explain anything that seems confusing or contradictory.

Recovering Your Legal Fees

The vast majority of special education cases in California settle without a trial.

Parents and the school district usually go through due process. State data show 4,854 due process cases in the 2017–2018 school year. Most of these cases settle before going to a hearing.

You can bring a due process complaint against the school district if they violate the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. For example, if you believe the district isn’t providing your child with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) as the law requires, you can file a due process complaint.

IDEA and Section 504 allow you to recover some or all of your attorneys’ fees from the school district if you prevail in due process. Congress wrote the “Attorney Fee Recovery” provision so that parents could use professional representation no matter their income level.

The provision only applies to lawyers, though. If you choose an advocate instead of an attorney, the law doesn’t allow you to recover those fees.

You can access a lawyer’s services for potentially less money because of the cost-shifting provisions. The school district has more incentive to settle your case because if they lose in a hearing they’ll have to pay your attorney’s fees in addition to their own.

Using a Special Education Lawyer for Your Due Process Complaint

Because you may be able to recover your legal costs, using a special education lawyer to bring your due process complaint is a much better option than trying to navigate the process yourself.

The relevant laws and procedures are complex. The school district will certainly have an attorney. If you don’t have your own legal counsel, you’ll be at a disadvantage.

A lawyer will evaluate the strength of your claim and help you bring the claim that is most likely to be successful.

An attorney can also help you negotiate a favorable settlement. The school district has less incentive to settle the case if you don’t have a lawyer. You’re less likely to win the case, and even if you won the district wouldn’t have the added cost of paying your legal fees.

Getting the Best Value from a Special Education Attorney

Even with a variety of payment structures available and the possibility of recovering your lawyer’s fees from the school district, hiring a special education attorney is an investment. You want to be sure you’re getting the best value.

Look for a lawyer with extensive experience in special education cases. In addition to knowledge of relevant laws and court decisions, a special education lawyer should be familiar with local school districts, service providers, and evaluators. You want a lawyer who understands local customs and the educational options that are available.

Tsadik Law is a dedicated special education law firm. We’ll honestly evaluate your situation and advise you on the best course of action. We’ll clearly explain our fee structure so you know what to expect.

Contact Tsadik Law to schedule a consultation and find out how we can help you get the best outcome for your child.