While advocates provide wonderful services, they are limited in their abilities. Advocates can help you interpret testing results, prepare for an IEP meeting, and accompany you to the meeting. However, this is where the advocate services must end, as anything further might be considered the unauthorized practice of law. Activities such as providing legal advice, assisting you with the preparation of a due process complaint, or appearing on your behalf at a hearing require a license to practice law, and therefore are activities that advocates cannot do.
People often hire advocates for the simple reason that they’re less expensive than lawyers. While many advocates receive excellent training or have substantial experience from being in the field of education, lawyers often have knowledge that you or even the best advocate won’t have. Beyond special education laws, lawyers understand legal procedure and evidence rules, have knowledge of the hearing officers and judges, have courtroom experience, know how to conduct direct and cross-examination of witnesses, know how to obtain critical documents through discovery and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), are proficient at locating witnesses and, perhaps most importantly, know how to make “the record” for appeal (if the case goes beyond a due process hearing). In addition, unlike lawyers, advocates are not required to take mandatory continuing legal education so they are informed on the latest laws and cases in special education.
And while attorneys are usually more expensive than advocates, attorney’s fees are recoverable in special education cases, while advocate’s fees are not. In other words, if you succeed in a special education case with an attorney, you may get your money back. This is never the case with an advocate.