Special education lawyers help children and young adults with disabilities receive the educational services they need when teachers, schools and school districts fail to provide them. Their lawyer training requires a college education, law school and coursework that addresses the unique needs of their clients. While some special education attorneys earn less money than their colleagues who practice other types of law, they reap the emotional rewards of helping students with disabilities receive the education that the law requires of schools.
Special Education Laws
Special education lawyers help children and young adults with disabilities get the educational services they are entitled to by law. Much of their work centers on the disability rights established by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, often referred to as the Rehab Act.
Section 504 of the Rehab Act mandates that, “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . .” The provision applies to all organizations that receive federal funding, which includes public schools. The law requires public schools, and private schools that receive federal funds, to accommodate children with disabilities and provide them with an education.
The provisions of the Rehab Act apply to children with any type of disability that affects their ability to perform in school, including hearing impairment, learning disabilities, blindness, autism, brain injury, deafness, emotional disability, orthopedic disability, language impairment and health conditions. The law entitles children and young adults with disabilities to a free public education, like their schoolmates who do not have a disability or disabilities. Schools must accommodate children with disabilities by providing any special equipment that they need to attend class, and an educational program that fits their specific needs. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975 reinforced the Rehab Act by mandating special education requirement for people age 3 to 21.
To qualify for a special education program, a professional such as a medical doctor, psychologist or licensed social worker must deem a child’s condition a disability. In many cases, disabilities appear at birth or during a child’s preschool years. But some disabilities, including autism and learning disabilities, often appear after a child enters the school system, based on their academic performance or behavior. Professionals use a number of assessment tools to determine if a child has a developmental, behavioral or learning disability, including the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Denver Developmental Screening Test II, Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, Peabody Individual Achievement Test and state standardized tests.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 7 million children and young adults qualified for special education programs in the 2015 to 2016 school year. They accounted for 13 percent of public school enrollment.
What Does a Special Education Lawyer Do?
When schools fail to provide required services to their disabled children, they often turn to special education lawyers for help. Special education lawyers practice a highly specialized form of law that focuses on the needs of disabled children and the laws that govern their education.
In some instances, parents of children and young adults who have disabilities hire a special education lawyer after trying to negotiate with a teacher, school administrator or school board on their own. In other cases, parents retain a special education attorney when problems first arise in their child’s education. Each case a special education lawyer handles has unique challenges.
Special education lawyers often represent disabled children and young adults in court cases against teachers, schools or school districts. They attend educational evaluations, prepare special education eligibility documents and request documents such as examination results from schools. They attend meetings with parents, teachers and school administrators. In many cases, school officials and parents settle their disputes through mediation, during which a special education attorney presents the case for the student she represents.
The role of a special education lawyer requires knowledge of the law and the needs of each of his disabled clients. He must understand a variety of emotional, behavioral, learning and physical disabilities in order to serve each client’s specific needs. Special education attorneys must understand disability evaluation tools and tests, and the role they play in the educational process of their clients.
Special Education Lawyer Education Requirements
The steps to becoming a lawyer include earning a four-year degree from a college or university and a Juris Doctor degree from a law school. Typically, bachelor’s degree programs take four years to complete.
Aspiring attorneys often earn undergraduate degrees that can build a foundation for law school and prepare them for the type of law they plan to practice. If you want to practice special education law, you might earn a bachelor’s degree in special education, or a behavior science discipline such as sociology, social work or psychology. Other beneficial coursework includes public speaking, English, debate and government, which can prepare you for the challenges of presenting cases and navigating the bureaucratic hurdles of dealing with school district policies.
If you wish to earn a master’s degree before enrolling in law school, you might consider an occupational therapy program, which will provide a foundation for understanding the needs of people with disabilities. Earning a master’s degree might increase your chances of admission to law school.
Law school programs take about three years to complete. Admission to law school can be a challenge, due to stiff competition from other applicants and strict admissions guidelines. Admissions committees look for candidates whom they believe can meet the challenges of working in the legal system. Most law schools require applicants to take the Law School Admission Test, which tests a student’s capacity for understanding the law and representing clients. Committees look for well-rounded individuals, and consider applicants’ undergraduate transcripts, extracurricular activities, work experience and volunteer work when deciding whom to admit.
Some law schools provide specialized coursework in special education law. For example, Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, California, offers its students a special education clinic. The program immerses students in special education law by enabling them to work with real clients. Under the supervision of a licensed special education attorney, students participate in mediation sessions, file noncompliance complaints and present IDEA workshops with parents. They also learn how to interview disabled children and interpret psychological and educational examinations.
Special Education Lawyer Licenses
All attorneys must obtain a license to practice law. After graduating from law school, a special education attorney must pass examinations – referred to as “bar exams” – to qualify for licensing.
Each state’s highest court sets the requirements to practice law in its court system. Many states require lawyers to have a law degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association, an organization of attorneys and law students. Some states require applicants to pass one written test, but others require more than one examination.
Most states require lawyers to pass the Multistate Bar Exam, a general test that covers laws and procedures. Typically, other types of examinations evaluate an applicant’s knowledge of state laws, legal processes and court procedures.
Licensing requirements also include fitness and character qualifications. An applicant must submit documentation about their history. A history of criminal convictions, substance abuse or school disciplinary actions can disqualify a candidate. Lawyers who meet all requirements are “admitted to the bar” and given a license to practice law.
Some lawyers practice law in more than one state. Some states offer licensing reciprocity, which means they can transfer their bar exam scores, without retaking tests. However, for a licensed lawyer to obtain a license in another state, she must meet all licensing requirements. If her home state only requires passing one test, but the other state requires two examinations, she must take the second test to obtain a license. Also, each state has unique fitness and character requirements. While one state might overlook certain types of criminal or disciplinary history, another state might have stricter guidelines that disqualify a candidate. States that do not offer reciprocity, including Florida and California, require lawyers to pass all required examinations.
Some states require lawyers to periodically take continuing education courses to retain their licenses.
Special Education Lawyer Certifications
Some special education lawyers receive training from and certification through programs offered by universities and special education advocacy organizations. Certification programs can help advance special education lawyers’ careers and add credibility to their practices.
Drexel University offers an online Collaborative Special Education Law and Process Certificate program, developed by special education teachers and taught by special education attorneys, hearing officers, advocates and parents of special education students. The Drexel program helps lawyers gain a better understanding of the needs of students with disabilities, as well as special education law and policies.
The National Special Education Advocacy Institute (NSEAI) offers Board Certified Education Advocate certification through a series of online webinars. The NSEAI program teaches lawyers how to understand special education documentation, educational assessments, assistive technologies, service evaluations and advocacy practices.
Typically, certified special education lawyers periodically must take additional courses to retain their certification.
Special Education Lawyer Essential Qualities
While special education attorneys must have the requisite education and license to practice law, the unique demands of working with disabled children and young adults, along with their parents, requires them to have certain personal and professional abilities, too.
Like all lawyers, special education attorneys must have good analytical skills to evaluate complex cases and excellent problem-solving skills to find solutions. They must possess good interpersonal skills to work with clients and a calm demeanor when representing their clients in court proceedings or mediation sessions.
Attorneys must have good written and verbal communication skills to prepare reports and legal documents. They must have good public speaking and presentation skills when representing clients in court or mediation sessions.
Special education lawyers must have good research skills and the ability to understand complex medical, physical, behavioral, learning and emotional disabilities. They must have the skills to determine the specific needs of their clients and empathy for the difficulties their clients face due to their disabilities.
Special Education Lawyer Salary
In 2017, lawyers earned a median salary of around $120,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The median salary estimate represents the middle of the attorney pay scale.
The BLS does not provide salary data specific to special education lawyers. However, according to the jobs website Indeed, special education attorneys in Los Angeles, California earned $57,000 to $133,000 in 2018. Salaries vary by location. For example, special education lawyers in Little Rock, Arkansas, earn an average salary of less than $72,000. Indeed bases its salary data on information submitted by its website users, legal employees and wages listed in job postings.
Special Education Lawyer Job Outlook
According to the BLS, job opportunities for lawyers should increase by around 8 percent, from now until 2026. The Bureau does not offer job outlook information specific to special education lawyers.