Statistically, the vast majority of Social Security Disability (SSDI/SSD) and SSI claims are denied at the initial claim and reconsideration levels, and this typically happens regardless of whether or not a claimant is represented by an attorney or non-attorney disability advocate.
For this reason, most SSD and SSI claims will need to go to a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ) before a claimant can hope to receive disability benefits. It is at the level of an ALJ hearing that having a disability attorney or non-attorney representative, a.k.a. a disability advocate, can really help win a claim. While a disability attorney or non-attorney representative can't guarantee that a claimant will be awarded Social Security Disability or SSI benefits, a Social Security lawyer can guarantee that a case will be properly "developed" prior to a hearing date.
The simple fact of the matter is this: the vast majority of SSDI and SSI claimants will have no idea how to properly and thoroughly prepare a disability case for a hearing, whereas an attorney advocate or representative has a high level of familiarity and expertise with Social Security rules and regulations. And, in many cases, an attorney or advocate will have several years of invaluable SSDI and SSI claim experience to lend to a claimant's disability case. A disability advocate will know what a judge will be looking for with a particular medical condition, and will know what questions to ask your doctor.
Because disability attorneys get paid on contingency (only if you win), they do a great many things to ensure that an SSDI or SSI claim will have the best chance of winning. This includes tracking down important medical records and test results, obtaining detailed statements from a claimant's treating physicians, and, at the time of the hearing, applying a thorough understanding of SSA regulations and prior rulings to the disability adjudication process.
Can a claimant who is not represented by an attorney advocate still win an SSD or SSI disability claim at an ALJ hearing? Yes, and, in fact, this does occasionally happen. However, the odds of winning a disability claim before an ALJ are markedly decreased when a claimant does not hire an attorney or representative. (Here's why.)
Weigh the risk of going unrepresented to a hearing when your future livelihood is literally at stake--particularly when it takes so long to get to a disability hearing in the first place--with the percentage of your backpay that you'll have to pay an attorney or representative, if you win (limited to $6,000 for Social Security cases). (Learn about how disability lawyers are paid.)
Though an attorney or representative is never required in a disability claim (with an appeal to federal court being the exception), attending a hearing before a judge without the assistance of a disability attorney or non-attorney representative can result in a lost opportunity to win disability benefits.
Even unrepresented claimants who are successful and win their claims may not obtain the most favorable "onset date," which affects how much backpay they get. The date of onset of the disability determines how much a claimant will receive in backpay; therefore, being able to prove the earliest possible onset is of extreme importance for a Social Security disability or SSI claimant. (Learn more about onset date and backpay.)
Find your state below to locate a disability attorney or advocate in your area.