Applicants for Social Security disability (or SSI disability) are very unlikely to find an attorney to represent them for free, even at legal aid offices. This is because attorneys who help disability claimants work on a contingency basis, meaning that they only get paid for their work if they win your case. In addition, fees paid to disability lawyers are approved by Social Security and are limited to certain amounts.
Disability attorneys do not require their fees to be paid up front. Instead, they collect a maximum of 25% of your retroactive benefits (backpay) or $6,000, whichever is less. Social Security pays your attorney directly out of your backpay award. In the unlikely event that your disability application is approved with no backpay award, your lawyer would not be entitled to collect a fee. (Since applications take at lease a month and usually much longer to process, there are always back payments owed to you.)
Attorneys will spend money to win your case, usually on things like copying and postage for gathering all of your medical records and submitting them to Social Security. Many attorneys will require you to pay these costs to them directly as the case goes forward. Social Security allows attorneys to charge claimants for reasonable costs before winning the case, but not for attorneys' fees. Before you hire an attorney or representative for your case, make sure you understand how much you will be paying for their service and sign a written agreement that discusses reasonable costs.
There are non-profit law firms and legal aid organizations that help claimants with Social Security disability cases. However, even legal aid attorneys are permitted to collect fees from disability backpay to compensate them for the time they spend working on your case. You may want to contact your local legal aid organization to see if they accept disability cases and what their fee policy is. You can find your local legal aid office in this directory from Legal Services Corporation. If you live near law schools, you can call them to see if they have a disability “clinic” where law students represent disability claimants.