Make your IEP binder systematic and empowering now.

Special Education Advocate vs. Attorney – Which Do I Need?

After we discussed when you might need a special education lawyer in San Diego and what these professionals do, let’s compare their services to an advocate’s. We’ll do this with the help of a very resourceful portal for parents of children with disabilities

A breakdown of services: special education advocate vs. attorney

The most important difference is that an advocate cannot give you legal advice, represent you in a legal capacity nor prepare legal documents in a dispute.

An advocate can:

  • Review your child’s IEP or 504 plan
  • Attend IEP and 504 meetings with you in order to facilitate solutions
  • Negotiate with the school for you
  • Advise you on the appropriate services and support for your child
  • Inform you on your and your child’s rights with regard to special education
  • Recommend specialists, service providers and other institutions/professionals that might be of help
  • Help you write letters to the school

An attorney can:

  • Review your child’s IEP or 504 from a legal viewpoint
  • Attend IEP or 504 meetings with you
  • Negotiate with the school for you
  • Advise you on your and your child’s rights with respect to special education
  • Write letters to the school for you
  • Represent you in a mediation, due process and impartial hearing
  • Represent you in court
  • Prepare legal documents, including complaints

The qualifications of a special education advocate vs. attorney

There are no minimum educational requirements, no specific training and no continuing educational requirements for someone to call themselves a special education advocate. That’s why it is very important to do your homework before you hire an advocate.

On the other hand, for someone to call themselves a lawyer in San Diego, they must have a license to practice law in California. Not many lawyers focus on special education law, but there are some.

Whether you are considering hiring an advocate or an attorney, here are some questions that could help you find a good match for your case:

  • How long have you been practicing in this field?
  • Have you worked on similar cases?
  • Do you have a personal experience?
  • What would you propose as a course of action in our case?
  • How will I be included in the process?
  • How will you keep me in the know about the developments?

You should also make sure you ask about fees, services included in those fees, contracts and agreements if applicable and malpractice insurance (for attorneys).

What are the benefits of hiring special education advocate vs. attorney?

Advocates and attorneys have different, if sometimes overlapping, skills. The benefits of hiring an advocate or an attorney are not just the differences in their knowledge and skills, but also in the way they can bring you leverage in your relationship with the school.

With an advocate at your side, you would hire someone who will:

  • Review your child’s IEP or 504 with a focus on goals and objectives, teaching methods, behavior strategies, assistive technology
  • Be able to differentiate disabilities and difficulties and recommend further evaluations/professionals to work with
  • Be able to talk directly to the school representatives (attorneys generally have to communicate with the school via their attorney)
  • Very likely be able to negotiate child-centered solutions at the IEP level, without the need of proceeding to mediation or due process
  • Most likely not be seen as an adversary

Regarding the last point – schools can react differently to the presence of an advocate, but they are generally open to working with advocates. You will need to notify the school if you intend to hire one. Whereas hiring an attorney may send a clear message about how serious you are, it may also be seen as an aggressive and confrontational move. The school will typically bring in their attorney as well, which may hinder communication.

With a special education lawyer next to you, you hire someone who will:

  • Be able to assess your situation from the legal perspective
  • Advise you of the legal implication of actions you are considering taking
  • Handle legal documentation for your case
  • Make you look more aggressive in your pursuit of appropriate services for your child

The message is – you don’t have to go it alone

You don’t have to pursue appropriate services and support for your child on your own. And when you think you want to have a professional at your side, you needn’t decide all on your own either. Pacific Coast Advocates are here to give you a no-cost 30-minute phone consult that could provide you the information you need to make the special education advocate vs. attorney decision. We are a team of highly qualified special ed advocates, who are also parents of children with disabilities, and we have a good relationship with a number of special education attorneys in San Diego. Feel free to reach out to us to book your free consult at 619-255-5532 or email us at

What Can a Special Education Attorney Do for Me?

“Accurate information is a key part of motivation,” according to Mary Ann Allison. Special education is not a straightforward, step-by-step process and parents generally need help navigating it and securing all the services their child is entitled to. There may be times when you, as a parent, need a special education attorney or advocate to support you and your child. You need to know who to turn to so you feel more motivated and confident. Most often, parents approach advocates or attorneys. Here’s some information that sheds some light on what a special education attorney can do for you.

What does a special education attorney do?

An attorney is a legal professional. There is a lot of legislation related to special education, such as: the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). These acts and regulations mandate that states provide a free education and appropriate services to secure equal opportunities for all students. Parents of children with special needs are often unfamiliar with all the legislation, or at least, they don’t understand the legislation fully and how it relates to their situation. Advocating for your child’s individual needs and appropriate services is a lot easier if you know your rights. That is something a special education attorney can help with.

An attorney can act as an advocate, using their mediation and negotiation skills, and can also advise parents on the benefits and risks of taking legal action against the school authorities. If the parents decide to pursue further legal action, the attorney can manage the process.

In short, given their background and expertise, special education attorneys are able to tell parents what they need to know, particularly relating to their rights and the legal side of things.

What can a special education attorney do for ME?

Practically speaking, you can use legal services to get guidance on what you can do and how, or you can use them to have a formal representative in your relationship with the school.

Here are examples of practical tasks that a special education attorney can perform for you:

  • Obtaining your child’s school records
  • Requesting your child be evaluated
  • Requesting an IEP meeting
  • Preparing for an IEP meeting
  • Attending an IEP meeting with you
  • Examining your situation from a legal point of view
  • Assessing the strength of your case
  • Negotiating with the school to reach an agreement and solution outside the court
  • Preparing for hearings
  • Attending hearings with you and handing the related administration
  • Preparing a formal complaint to be filed with an educational body
  • Representing you in court

How is hiring an attorney different from hiring an advocate?

You might have noticed that a lot of the above tasks can also be performed by an advocate. There is some overlapping, yes, so you should carefully consider whether you need a special education attorney or an advocate. The most important difference is that an attorney is a legal professional. Whereas an advocate can inform you about your rights, only an attorney is qualified to give you legal advice.

There are also some other considerations regarding what an attorney, not an advocate can do for you.

An attorney could be better suited to give you guidance in a complex dispute.

An attorney can perform a legal review of your case, present you the risks and benefits of taking legal action, so that you can decide whether you want to pursue that course of action.

An attorney could help you stand on an equal footing to the school if the school has a legal representative.

Hiring an attorney would make your relationship with the school more formal.

Pacific Coast Advocates could answer your questions

Are you experiencing difficulties communicating with the school? Do you feel discouraged, insecure and disoriented? Pacific Coast Advocates welcome you to book a free, no-obligation, 30-minute phone consult to discuss your situation. PCA is an expert team of special education advocates based in San Diego. We give you a unique service offering and a collaborative, child-centered approach. Reach out to us – we’d love to help any way we can! Contact us at 619-255-5532 or email us at 

Do I Need a Special Education Attorney in San Diego?

The majority of San Diego families with children who need special education services and support never need a special education attorney in San Diego at their side. However, there are situations when you are simply not sure whether you can produce results on your own or whether you need a legal professional to secure all the appropriate educational services for your child.

Circumstances that may call for a special education attorney in San Diego

Here are some situations in which it’s possible you need an attorney:

  • Your case involves complicated placement and services issues.
  • You or the district believe that the child should be placed out of district.
  • There has been a change in placement.
  • You are not sure about the strength of your case.
  • The district has an attorney to handle your case, so you may need one as well to level the playing field.
  • You (or the school district) are thinking of filing for a due process hearing.
  • You have been given a settlement agreement to sign in exchange for services or money.
  • There have been serious disciplinary issues, possibly even a Manifestation Determination.
  • Services in your child’s IEP have not been delivered, despite your ongoing efforts to get them.

Examples of violations of your and your child’s rights

  • Parent’s request for assessment of possible need for special education services has been refused.
  • The child hasn’t been assessed in all suspected areas of disability.
  • Parents were not informed about their procedural rights.
  • Reports from privately retained experts have been ignored.
  • Parents have been prevented from fully participating in the IEP.
  • Measurable goals have not been included in the IEP.
  • Necessary services have been denied for lack of resources.
  • The child has been suspended or expelled for behavior that is a manifestation of their disability.

Maybe you don’t need an attorney, but an advocate

It is possible that you don’t need the help of an attorney, but rather an advocate to help you secure the necessary services. Feel free to reach out to Pacific Coast Advocates at 619-255-5532 or email us at to find out your best course of action.

We need an attorney, but we can’t afford one

Hiring an attorney can prove expensive, but in your case it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing situation. If you don’t have enough means to hire a special education attorney in San Diego for full representation, it is typically possible to retain their services for certain tasks only. There could also be non-profit organizations offering some legal help, or legal clinics at law schools that provide some services at little or no cost.

While some attorneys charge hourly, there are some that have packages. In any case, most attorneys do provide free consultations, which you can use to inquire about their services and fees, as well as to find out whether they think you really need legal representation in the first place.

If you are looking for a special education attorney in San Diego, PCA may be able to help

Pacific Coast Advocates are a unique team of special education advocates in San Diego. Whereas we are not legal professionals, we are experts in special education services and have built positive relationships with a few special education attorneys in San Diego during our work. Here is a list of attorneys that we have referred clients to, in no special order:

Meagan Nunez:

Seth Schwartz:

Jazmine Gelfand:

Margaret Adams:

Thomas S. Nelson:

We always hope to help. Stay in touch!