Information For New Clients from a Paralegal Perspective…

Posted by:  Rondi Wellum, Paralegal and Office Manager

Ann does most the blogging at our office.  We have a goal of increasing the information we share.  Ann is in a hearing this week; I have officially promoted myself to the blogger for the office this week.  As the paralegal and officer manager working in a law firm which specializes in Education Law, I have daily contact with clients whilst they navigate the process of getting help with school issues.  I am often the first point of contact people have with our office.  My goal is to make the process of seeking legal help as easy as possible.  The reality is, it can be difficult to start this process.  The paperwork, appointments and money matters are challenging for anyone, never mind a parent who is surrounded by letters and documents with a calendar full of doctor’s appointments and a bank account in the red…often functioning on limited sleep and almost always feeling overwhelmed.  If I could tell perspective clients a few things, this is what I would say…

Fill out the Intake Form.    It may take about 5-10 minutes, or maybe longer if your particular issue is complex.  In the long run, it is the fastest way to move forward with getting a review of your potential education law matter.  We often get calls from people just checking to see if they are in the right ballpark with their issues.  The first question I ask when I get a call is this:  is the school in North Carolina?  After I have established the school is in North Carolina, I almost always recommend clients complete the intake form —  even if I am uncertain if they have a case with which we can help.  The intake form is your chance to provide detailed information to our attorneys.  Even if it happens to be an issue outside our scope of practice, we may be able to provide a referral to someone who can help.  We used to do intakes over the phone but we have found that education cases often involve a multitude of schools, people, places.  The intake form gives us the Who, What, When, Where, How & Why – and it is substantially better to have this information directly from our clients.  Client don’t want to leave it to me to spell Ms. Fetherstonhaugh.

If you have not already done this, get organized.  Every time you speak to a person about your child’s matter, write down their name, the date of the conversation and a few details.  Don’t be afraid to ask a person his/her name again or how to spell it.  Keep a notebook or Word document with these contacts.   When possible, get thing in writing.  If you have a phone call, follow it up with an email reviewing what you discussed.  Keep school papers neat and organized.  For Special Education cases, we generally want the following items before the consultation:  the most recent IEP and supporting documents (invitation to conference, prior written notice, meeting minutes), the most recent set of evaluations (if any) and any letters/emails relating to the matter.  We mostly work with electronic documents, so if you have a PDF or Word version of documents, that is absolutely fine (even preferred!).  As a person who has done my fair share of scanning physical documents, my face lights up when those documents are neat, tidy without folds, notes or stains.  But coffee and tears happen.

You can expect that a consultation will take about 1 ½ hours and the cost will be either $275 (legal) or $200 (advocacy).  When we schedule your consultation, we will determine that best type for your case, given all circumstances.  Sometimes our legal cases start as advocacy.  This provides a chance to gather all of the documents we need and provide you with information about your options.  The two attorneys here work closely with each other.  Our small office has grown from 1.5 people (Ann and myself) to five people.  We have regular staff meetings to review cases and legal software to keep each other updated about communication, calendars.  I am proud to work for attorneys who are not only very knowledgeable about education law, but tremendously passionate about helping families.

Relax a bit.  I know the families contacting us have often been under extreme amounts of stress.  People arrive here after frustrating communications with the school – sometimes having battled for years to try to fix things and other times being taken completely by surprise about a school discipline or bullying issue.  Being a paralegal in this field is not always super rewarding or glamorous.  From fluorescent lights to mounds of paperwork to attorneys having “the buildings on fire” emergencies, there is something beyond a paycheck that keeps me working in Education Law.  That something is the look on clients’ faces as they leave their consultations.  Almost always, I see clients enter uncertain what to expect.  I see parents arrive frazzled, having chosen a lunch hour slot or end of day as the only time both could be here — or arriving alone because they are a single parent or their spouse could not leave work.  And almost always, those same people leave with a different countenance.  Knowledge is power, so I imagine it must be very empowering to have information to help determine the best course of action.  I also know that one appointment does not fix everything – and our clients leave with to-do lists, things to calendar and maybe another cost to consider.  Many of our clients are not only working toward improving difficult school circumstances, but also parenting a child with special needs.   We also represent college students, some of whom have disabilities and most who have their potential career on the line with a higher education matter.  I want our perspective clients to know there is help and hope.  Obviously I am biased; I work for an attorney who specializes in Education Law.  However, I would not work at this job if I was not fully invested in the mission our firm has of protecting the civil and legal rights of students and families.

I look forward to part two of my soap box stand, which will include information about the next steps as a case proceeds and will cover questions about communicating with attorneys, document management, understanding billing and invoices, etc.  Okay, I may need a part three and four.