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Finding an Attorney or Advocate

January 21st, 2010

Important rights are at stake in the legal issues discussed here, and the outcome of these situations can have profound implications for your family and for your child's future. An attorney can be a valuable consultant; if you have not obtained the desired results through your own efforts, skilled legal representation will almost always help your cause.

You can hire an attorney either for an entire matter or as a consultant for a limited number of hours. Following is basic information on this process.

Q: Does hiring an attorney mean I'm going to be involved in a lawsuit?

A: Not necessarily. Legal disputes can often be resolved without litigation. Sometimes all that is needed is a phone call or letter from an attorney, clearly and authoritatively presenting the facts in light of your (or your child's) legal rights. If that doesn't work, mediation can be the next step to finding a resolution. If you do not want to sue, a responsive attorney should do everything possible short of litigation to advocate for you.

Q: What kind of attorney should I hire?

A: Always hire an attorney specializing in the particular area of your concern, such as juvenile law, family law, special education, insurance, employment, or civil liberties.

Your attorney should be trustworthy, accessible and easy to communicate with. Ideally, you should retain an attorney who is knowledgeable about pediatric bipolar disorder. Realistically, many attorneys will need to be educated about psychiatric illnesses, particularly in children.

Finding an attorney who is capable, knowledgeable about your local court system, and respected by peers is of utmost importance. If you find a skilled and reputable attorney willing to learn about bipolar disorder and its implications for your child, then you have made a good start. Regardless of the attorney's specific qualifications, all cases must be researched, and therefore an attorney's overall skill and experience is more important than having this specialized knowledge at the outset.

Q: How do I find a good attorney?

A: If your family can afford to hire a private attorney, here are some steps you can take to locate someone who is qualified.

  • Get a recommendation from your family attorney or another practicing attorney in your community.
  • Get a recommendation from another parent who has faced a similar or related legal problem.
  • Contact your local bar association. Many state and local bar associations have lawyer referral and information services that will provide listings of appropriate lawyers. Again, ask for a referral to an attorney with the specific expertise needed. Be aware, however, that referrals from the local bar association are sometimes simply listings of those attorneys practicing in the geographical area meeting certain minimal requirements and are not necessarily "recommended."
  • Contact a local nonprofit organization dealing with disability, mental health, or juvenile rights. Often such organizations serve as community resources for attorneys practicing in those areas of the law, and staff may be able to provide referrals.
  • The Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory lists more than 900,000 lawyers and law firms in the United States. Visit the Martindale-Hubbell Lawyer Locator at http://www.martindale.com/.

Q: What if I can't afford to pay for an attorney?

A: If your child is facing criminal charges where a jail sentence is a possibility and your family can't afford a private lawyer, your child or you may be entitled to free legal defense through a court-appointed attorney. This usually is done at the defendant's first court appearance, typically either an arraignment or a bail hearing. You may be able to get a pro bono attorney (fees are waived) through Justice Denied - Pro Bono Attorneys.

If you as a parent are facing a proceeding to terminate your parental rights and you cannot afford a lawyer, the court may, depending on the circumstances of your particular case, appoint an attorney to represent you at no cost to you. In civil matters, free representation for those families unable to afford an attorney may be available through the local Legal Aid office. See www.rin.lsc.gov/rinboard/rguide/pdir1.htm.

Q: Do I have any alternatives to an attorney appointed by the court?

A: Some attorneys and law firms will offer some services pro bono (for free, for the public good) or at reduced fees. You may wish to meet with qualified attorneys and ask if they would be willing to represent you or your child in a particular matter pro bono or at a reduced rate. In addition, many locallegal services agencies provide pro bono services to clients who meet certain case and income guidelines. A listing of such programs in all fifty states is available at http://www.lawyers.com. Such programs can be good referral sources, even if they cannot take your case.

Q: What exactly is an advocate, and how can I locate one?

A: Although not a substitute for an attorney, a trained parent advocate can help keep your family's legal expenses more manageable. A parent advocate is an interested layperson (often another parent of a child with a disability) who is trained to help you maneuver through any legal process involving your child. You can find a listing of parent advocates at the Web site of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA).

Each state runs a Protection and Advocacy Agency for Persons with Developmental Disabilities funded by the Federal Center for Mental Health Services. These agencies advocate for the rights of people with mental illnesses and ensure the disabled full access to educational programs, financial entitlements, health care, accessible housing and productive employment opportunities. A state-by-state listing of advocates is available at http://www.protectionandadvocacy.com/aboutus/PA_CAP.htm. Additional advocacy programs and resources can be found at http://www.bazelon.org/what.html

Q: What should I expect and how do I prepare for my initial consultation with an attorney?

A: It is common, but not universal, practice among lawyers to provide an initial consultation at no cost. You can use this meeting to both outline the situation with which you need assistance and to determine if the lawyer is someone you want to handle your case. Ask about the lawyer's knowledge of mental health issues in general and specific experience with the type of legal problem you need help with. Find out the lawyer's initial impression regarding possible approaches to the matter, and the possible outcomes.

Inquire about rates, an estimate of the total bill, whether the attorney will handle the matter personally or involve associates, and how the attorney typically communicates with clients (email, letters, telephone) about the progress of the case.

If you have any correspondence or other documents concerning your particular situation, your attorney will need to see them, so it is a good idea to bring copies or send them before the initial consultation.

Because attorneys usually bill by the hour, you can save money by helping your attorney find resources for learning about pediatric bipolar disorder. Refer him or her to the The Balanced Mind Parent Network Library for information and references or provide materials printed from this Web site. You may also want to give or loan your attorney relevant reference books. To the extent you can, educate yourself about the legal issues of your situation. The more background you acquire, the less time your attorney will need to spend educating you.


Families with legal problems are urged to hire a capable local attorney licensed to practice in the state in which the family resides. The Balanced Mind Parent Network (The Balanced Mind Parent Network) is unable to provide you with legal advice and The Balanced Mind Parent Network’s attorneys are unable to represent you.

 The information on this web page is not a substitute for legal advice. It is intended to be general in nature. The laws of each state are different. The law is always changing. The information here may not reflect the latest legal developments. NO WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, IS GIVEN AS TO THE ACCURACY OF THIS INFORMATION.