The answer to the question posed in the title is, typically, lawyerly – it depends.
What is the “practice of law”? “Unauthorized practice of law (UPL)”?
First, let’s discuss what is the “practice of law” and “UPL”. Virtually every licensed occupation is regulated by the State. For example, in Pennsylvania, the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs regulates almost every licensed occupation, such as accountants, nurses, barbers, funeral directors, dentists, etc. However, lawyers are regulated exclusively by the highest court of the state – in Pennsylvania, it is the PA Supreme Court. This regulation includes the power to define what constitutes the practice of law. See PA. Constitution Article V, Section 10(c).
That is not as easy as it sounds. Courts don’t face this issue very frequently. Generally, there are three categories of activities / services reserved to those who are admitted to the bar: (1) advising clients as to what the law is to enable them to act and pursue their affairs; (2) preparation of documents that require familiarity with legal principles an ordinary person wouldn’t know (such as preparing a court document); and (3) appearing before a public tribunal, such as a court or administrative hearing. Put another way, a person who doesn’t have a license to practice law should not tell someone what the law is and advise them to act accordingly, prepare a legal document, or show up in court on behalf of anyone but him/herself. Doing so would be the unauthorized practice of law, or “UPL”.
A person can get in serious trouble for UPL. In fact, in most states it is a crime. In Pennsylvania, for example, it is a misdemeanor of the 3rd degree for a first time offender; misdemeanor of the 1st degree for a repeat offender. See 42 Pa.C.S. Section 2524(a). It may also be a violation of a state’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, which would subject them to civil (money) penalties.
Special Ed Advocates and UPL
So how does this apply to Special Education Advocates? Again, it depends. A description of the typical special education law case timeline is helpful.
Briefly, the first event is that a child is diagnosed with a disability that triggers the right to have special education in school. The next event is that a team of school personnel, physicians, and the parents decide what should be in the special education program for that child (this is called an Individualized Education Plan or “IEP”). Sometimes there is disagreement over what should be in the IEP or how the school is implementing it. What comes next may be a due process complaint and hearing. This is a semi-formal process where the school and the parents put on a case before a hearing officer (not always even a lawyer). The hearing officer decides whether the services are appropriate or not. If either the school or the parent disagrees, they can then appeal that hearing officer decision to a court.
The laws and regulations make it clear that parents are entitled to have “other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate” with them at IEP meetings. See 20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(B) and 34 CFR §300.321(a)(6).
As a result of this language in the laws, a cottage industry of advocates, mostly made up of parents of disabled children themselves who are veterans of the battles with schools over special education, has developed and flourished.
Do not misunderstand me – I think advocates are wonderful and perform great services to parents, especially since most parents of special needs kids are heavily burdened with medical and other expenses making lawyers unaffordable at almost every level. Well-trained advocates offer objective, yet passionate assistance to parents so that they can make informed decisions without the emotions getting in the way.
However, there are limits to this participation. The portion of the law quoted above comes under the definition of an “IEP team”. Matching that with the description above of what is the practice of law, an advocate should stick to helping a parent to prepare for and make it through the IEP meeting in an informed manner. The advocate should be careful not to suggest a path for a parent based on an interpretation of the law – this is acting like a legal advisor and is likely UPL. However, an advocate can certainly tell a parent, “the law states that an IEP should include . . .” or that the law requires certain procedures to be followed.
So what CAN’T an advocate do? This depends a great deal on state law. While some states permit advocates to act as lawyers in due process hearings, most states still do not. To be safe, an advocate should not prepare a due process complaint, represent a parent at a due process hearing, or draft an appeal of the hearing officer decision in a court pleading. These are all the practice of law and if an advocate, not licensed to practice law in that state, provides one of those services, it is UPL. Of course, there are licensed attorneys who provide advocacy services, so they are entitled to provide any and all of these services.
Why is UPL a bad thing?
The reason why the above-described tasks are UPL may not be so obvious. Many people might think, “I represented myself in my own divorce case, so why can’t someone help me with my special ed case?” And therein is the answer – you can represent YOURSELF in any legal proceeding (that is called acting “pro se” or for yourself), but someone else cannot represent you. Why? Lawyers are trained to understand, not just the law, but legal procedure. For example, it is important in a due process complaint to make sure you plead every option available to you; failure to do so might give up a right or two or seven. In some states, you may have a civil rights case under Section 504 or the ADA, but many advocates don’t know this or even if they do, they don’t know you MUST include those allegations in your due process complaint.
Two other critical examples are the Rules of Evidence and Appellate Procedure. Most advocates don’t know the rules of how documents or testimony get “into evidence” so that a judge can consider them. Further, if you have to appeal an administrative decision to court, it is like an appeal and sometimes only the record that is made at the due process hearing is considered by the court and if you don’t get the information in at the due process level, you might have to fight a battle at the appeal level to get it in – and you might lose. Many well-trained advocates don’t know these rules because they aren’t licensed lawyers.
To conclude, Advocates are a necessary and crucial part of the special education process. There is no better (and more affordable) help with making sense of this maze of special education law, especially when you are simply trying to get services for your child at school, than a well-trained advocate. However, remember that they are limited in what they can do and when it comes to advising you on a legal path or preparing your complaints or representing you at a hearing, only licensed attorneys can help you in those situations.
Recommended reading: “Guidelines for Choosing an Advocate” from COPAA.