Special Education Attorneys and Advocates: What’s the Difference?

When it comes to helping your child get the services they need, it’s sometimes necessary to hire outside help in the form of an advocate or an attorney. It can be difficult to parse the differences between the two, so we asked special education advocate Dr. Sarah Pelangka and special education attorney Grace Clark to break it down.
When deciding between an advocate and an attorney, first consider whether you feel your child is generally making progress and receiving a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). If the answer is yes, an advocate may be the right professional to ensure your child continues to get what they are entitled to, and help mitigate the feelings of intimidation that can come with attending IEP meetings. If the answer is no, consulting with an attorney will help you determine whether you should challenge the district’s offer for your child.
Advocates are excellent at helping a parent through the IEP process. They can:

  • Interpret testing results and explain the IEP document, both of which can feel overwhelming to anyone who is not familiar with the terminology.
  • Accompany a parent to an IEP meeting and make requests or demands that parents may feel uncomfortable making.
  • Ensure IEP goals are well written, and suggest new goals that the IEP team might have overlooked. 

Attorneys are licensed to practice law, so they are able to do things that advocates cannot do, such as:

  • Provide legal advice.
  • Assist with the preparation of a due process complaint.
  • Appear on your behalf at a hearing. 
  • Subpoena and examine witnesses, obtain critical documents through discovery, preserve records for appeal, and other related legal/courtroom procedures.

Things both attorneys and advocates can do


  • Assist with negotiations with the school and district.
  • Write letters/emails on your behalf.
  • Assist in reviewing documents.
  • Help you understand your rights.
  • Attend IEP/504 team meetings with you (note that although you have the legal right to bring an attorney with you to your child’s IEP meeting, you are required to notify your child’s IEP team, as they are also allowed to have their lawyer present). 
  • Recommend assessors, schools, and more.

Education and certification
Attorneys must maintain their license, which includes participating in mandatory continuing legal education, so they are informed on the latest laws and cases in special education. There is no such requirement for advocates, though most have some background in special education. 
Hiring an advocate is typically less expensive than hiring a lawyer. However, lawyer’s fees are recoverable from the district in a settlement agreement or if the parent prevails at a due process hearing, so a parent may be reimbursed for some or all of their attorney’s fees.


Here’s a simple chart to help understand the main differences: 


Licensed professional who has passed the bar exam No certification or licensure required; anyone can call themselves a “lay advocate”
Provides legal advice and practices law Makes recommendations
Legally represents you in disputes Can offer guidance but cannot represent or provide legal advice in California
Main skill is law (although they may have a personal or past educational tie to special education) Generally has some background in special education
May have a relationship with someone (parent, sibling, etc.) who has a disability
May have special knowledge of special education as it relates to the profession
Cost is generally higher than the cost of an advocate, but fees can be reimbursed depending on outcomes Generally cheaper than the cost of a lawyer

Tips for choosing the right person to work with

Whether it’s an advocate or an attorney, you’ll want to consider these tips when making a decision to hire someone:

  • Interview your candidates; ask them questions about their background and style, and make sure you feel as though it will be a good fit.
  • Ask about all fees. 
  • Ask if they have a waitlist, and when they can begin working on your case.
  • Ask about their communication style; do they speak up at meetings or do they prefer to write letters to the district? 
  • Are they familiar with your area and your district? Do they have a history with your district?
  • What is your ultimate goal in hiring this professional? For example, do you need a current problem resolved or are you looking to learn and receive guidance throughout this journey?

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