This article does not tell you that you need to hire an attorney to represent you in your federal disability retirement application or appeal. There are many federal employees who successfully navigate OPM's bureaucracy, on their own, successfully. This article assumes that you have made the decision to hire an attorney to represent you in your application for federal disability retirement.
1. Start Your Search Early
You don't have much time to make the decision to hire an attorney when OPM denies your claim for federal disability retirement. Research attorneys early, and, at the very least, have a list of attorneys that you will call when you decide to make the decision to hire an attorney. You can find federal disability retirement attorneys by doing a "Google" or "Yahoo" search on "federal disability retirement attorney" or contact a disability attorney from our lawyer directory. You may also be able to find lawyers by talking to friends who work for your federal agency.
2. Make Sure to Hire a Licensed Attorney
There are many attorneys and many non-attorneys that handle disability retirement claims. There is no rule that the advocate you hire must be an attorney. However, you can't get representation fees reimbursed by the MSPB (Merit Systems Protection Board) if you hire a non-attorney.
Also, attorneys have been to law school, have a license to practice law, and have higher ethical standards that we must follow in order to keep our licenses. Non-attorneys do not have these requirements; if they mess your claim up, miss a deadline, or cause you to lose entitlement to a benefit through negligence or ignorance, there's probably nothing you can do. Sure, you can sue, but you're going to have to hire an attorney and hope that the person you sue has money to pay a judgment.
You should verify that any attorney is actively licensed and not subject to discipline. (Believe it or not, some attorneys whose licenses to practice have been suspended are still practicing law.) Verify with the state bar where an attorney is licensed whether the license is active, suspended, or whether the attorney has any disciplinary action against him or her. Attorneys should be more than happy to tell you what state(s) they are licensed in and how to verify that fact thatthey are in good standing -- with all of the states they are licensed in.
3. Talk to More Than One Attorney
There are a few reasons that I recommend investing the time and money on two to three consults with different attorneys for federal disability retirement claims for FERS/CSRS employees. Attorneys' styles are different; our approaches to cases are different; and our interactions with clients are different. You want to pick an attorney whose style and approach to a case makes you comfortable. If you don't, when the case gets challenging or if your application is denied, you will have less confidence in the attorney you have chosen.
4. Confirm Your Attorney's Experience
If you need to appeal a denial, an attorney who handles federal disability retirement claims before OPM, but who has never represented employees before the MSPB, is like a car without wheels. Given the fact that, as a practical matter, the MSPB is the last chance you have to get your disability retirement granted, you want to make sure that your attorney knows MSPB procedures and how a disability retirement appeal differs from other types of appeals to the MSPB. How do you find out if the attorney has handled disability retirement appeals before the MSPB? Ask him or her. Don't be impressed by the big fancy law firms -- they aren't always the best. I took a case a few years back in which a high-profile attorney was originally my client's representative before OPM. The client paid a lot of money and came very close to losing her case because the attorney didn't get to know the rules of the MSPB forum. Also, don't be afraid of small firms and sole practitioners. One of the best attorneys I know continues to work out of his house.
5. Prepare for Your Initial Meeting With Potential Attorneys
If you are hiring an attorney to help you apply to OPM for federal disability retirement, you should be prepared to provide a copy of your position description, your most recent SF-50, and any medical records that you have available.
If you are hiring an attorney to help you challenge OPM's denial of federal disability retirement, you should provide the attorney(s) with whom you wish to consult with a copy of your disability retirement application, the OPM letter denying you federal disability retirement, your request for reconsideration, and any response from OPM.
If an attorney does not ask to see some of this documentation, you should be a bit wary. It is hard to assess timelines, merit, and fees -- fairly and reasonably -- without verifying information in these documents. If there are questions you want to ask the attorney, write them down so you don't forget to ask.
6. Be Candid and Open About Attorneys Fees
There are many good attorneys who handle federal disability retirement applications and applications. Unlike attorneys who help with Social Security disability claims, all of us charge different types of fees. Those fees can be fixed fees, hourly fees, monthly fees, and so on. Some attorneys charge low fixed fees for the application, but very high hourly rates for an MSPB appeal. Some attorneys charge only for the application, but do not represent before the MSPB. Others only represent applicants before the MSPB. Make sure you know what you are getting and that you are comfortable that the price you pay is a fair price you can live with, even if you lose. Be candid with the attorney you want to hire -- if you cannot afford the fees, tell the attorney what you can afford and propose some different fee arrangements.
Most important, don't make your decision on the spot. Sleep on it and make sure you are comfortable with your attorney's experience, reputation, fees, and understanding of your case. That way, even if you lose your case, you will feel that you got your "day in court."