GOOD Morning Wilton welcomes a new contributor, Wilton resident and attorney William Lalor, whose practice includes education and employment law, among other areas. He’ll be sharing his thoughts on those topics periodically in ways that we hope will help our readers, and we’re looking forward to reading what he has to say.
I am very happy to have this new opportunity to write a semi-regular column for GOOD Morning Wilton. After Heather and I first discussed this idea, we had a few conversations about the content and perspective that would be of value to GMW’s audience. I tried my best to convince Heather that I should be GMW’s (paid) sports writer, but that seems as likely as my becoming the Yankees centerfielder or the quarterback at Penn State (two dreams that I may soon need to let go). What we settled on is almost as exciting: a column offering an attorney’s perspective on areas of the law that can affect people on an individual, personal level. A lot of these issues are mystifying, and the idea of talking to a lawyer can be off-putting, “free consultation” or not. With this in mind, my hope is to offer readable, useful and practical insights on some common legal issues.
In my law practice I am often asked about education law. When I hear from parents of K-12 students who have questions related to this area of the law, the issues most often relate to a student’s special needs and whether the school is doing enough to help the student learn. Such issues can obviously be emotional and difficult for parents and the student. They can also be complex—and costly—for the families involved, especially if they are not handled correctly, and they can present ongoing difficulties and require constant attention. All of this is very hard on the students and parents, and many parents faced with IEPs, 504 Plans, or related issues consider hiring a lawyer.
As an attorney, my job is not to enlist clients, take their money, and spend hours writing long letters and threatening consequences if my demands are not met. Some attorneys may take this approach in education matters; I don’t. In fact, I sometimes have to turn away prospective clients who insist that their education-related situation is an adversarial matter that is already something like litigation (or worse) by the time they have contacted counsel.
None of this is to say that parents should not advocate for their children. Depending on the circumstances, I think lawyers can play an important role in education matters, especially since school districts are themselves routinely advised by experienced education counsel. Students and parents have important rights under complex state and federal laws, and these rights sometimes need to be safeguarded with the help of counsel who can navigate both the “black letter” and nuances of the law.
Sometimes, school districts get it wrong, whether on an individual, case-by-case basis, or at an administrative level as was seen a few years ago in Darien. And disagreements happen, such that some form of dispute resolution such as mediation may be necessary. In the typical special education situation, however, reflexively taking an adversarial approach makes little sense, costs parents a lot of money in attorneys’ fees, and delays resolution. In fact, in my experience, most schools act in good faith to accommodate and address special needs and other difficult issues. They are not engaging in conspiracies, and they are doing their best to comply with their obligations, e.g., with respect to eligibility for IEPs, IEEs, 504 plans, LRE placement, outplacement, etc.
Of course, there are exceptions and situations in the context of special education that require correction, and none of this is to suggest otherwise. Although every client’s situation is different, what I advise a lot of parents involved in special education situations is to give collaboration a good faith try in the first instance. This usually means that, absent evidence to the contrary, parents should the basis that school personnel are experienced professionals with the ability to address parents’ concerns and a good faith interest in doing so.
When problems and disagreements about special education services and placement arise, they should be addressed, and students deserve an informed advocate. When parents are provided with the right guidance and inform themselves about mechanics and nuances of IDEA or Section 504 (or many other education-related situations), they are frequently the best advocates for their children. This may mean that an attorney can provide advice and help the parent navigate the law’s technical issues and complexities privately and out of view, while the parents interface and discuss issues with the school. In some circumstances, it makes sense for an attorney to advocate and interface with the school. A significant aspect of counsel’s role in the education setting is to help parents decide which option makes the most sense under the circumstances.
William Lalor is an attorney with offices in Wilton and New York City. He can be reached via email or at 646.818.9870