If you're considering filing a Social Security disability claim because you find it hard or impossible to work, or you've already filed a claim and been denied, you may be wondering if you should hire a disability firm to help. Most disability applicants think they can't afford a disability firm, but they get paid out of your disability backpay (typically about $2,500 to $3,500), only if you win.
Statistically, the vast majority of Social Security disability claims are denied at the initial application and reconsideration levels, whether or not a disability applicant is represented by a disability advocate or attorney.
When we asked readers recently, we found that 28% of those who hired a lawyer to help them fill out the initial application were approved (and 24% of those who hired a nonattorney representative were approved), compared to only 20% of those who didn't hire a representative.
Because so many claims are initially denied, most disability claims will need to go to a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ) before a claimant (applicant) can hope to receive disability benefits. It's at the level of an ALJ hearing that having a disability attorney can really help win a claim. While hiring a disability attorney can't guarantee that a claimant will be awarded SSDI or SSI benefits, having a legal professional to help with your case can ensure that a case will be properly "developed" prior to a hearing date (more on this below).
Most SSDI and SSI claimants don't know how to properly and thoroughly prepare a disability case for a hearing. An experienced legal professional understands Social Security rules and regulations, how to supplement your medical records so they have the right evidence to support your case, the importance of the vocational evidence that you'll need for the hearing, and how to present your case to the judge at your hearing.
Example. Michael hires a disability attorney to represent him at his disability hearing. Prior to the hearing, Michael's attorney reviews Michael's Social Security file and realizes that a number of important medical records are missing. He requests those records and submits them to Social Security.
The lawyer also sends a letter to Michael's doctor requesting he complete a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form that details how exactly Michael would be limited in the workplace. The doctor completes the form, stating that chronic pain would require Michael to have to lie down during the day for at least two hours and miss more than two days of work per month.
At the hearing, Michael testifies with confidence because his lawyer has explained what questions the judge is likely to ask, and what to focus on in his responses. Michael's lawyer also cross-examines the vocational expert that Social Security brought to the hearing and gets her to admit that a person with Michael's medical restrictions couldn't hold a job.
Michael is approved for benefits after the hearing, receiving $22,000 in past-due benefits (after subtracting his lawyer's fee) and $1,500 per month going forward.
In our example, if Michael had tried to represent himself, he probably wouldn't have had complete medical records, wouldn't have obtained his doctor's opinion, and wouldn't know how best to testify or question the vocational expert at the hearing. It's not hard to see how hiring a disability attorney can greatly improve your chances of success.
Hiring a disability firm can speed up the progress of your disability case just by keeping things moving. For example, if your initial application is denied, you have 60 days to request a reconsideration of your claim. On your own, you might wait until day 55; if a firm is representing you, they'll get the paperwork done much sooner. Same with the request for a hearing date.
Bearing in mind that there are huge regional variations in processing times for disability claims, here is a rough idea as to how long you'll wait at the various stages of your claim:
There are two other situations in which hiring an attorney might cause things to move quicker. If you decide to attend your hearing without a lawyer, the ALJ might advise you to go hire a lawyer and will reschedule your hearing after you've done so. The reason for this is that ALJs generally prefer claimants to be represented by counsel so that they fully understand their rights and how the hearing process works.
In addition, if your case is very strong and you're eligible for an on-the-record decision, a disability lawyer can help you skip the hearing and go straight to an approval. This can save you months of waiting for a hearing date.
Most disability claimants think they can't afford a disability lawyer. In fact, a lawyer or firm can charge you a fee only if Social Security approves you for benefits, at which point the representative's fee is taken out of the back payments that Social Security owes you. The fee can be no more than 25% of your backpay, up to a maximum of $6,000. (A survey of our readers showed the average fee paid was $3,750.)
Because disability attorneys get paid only if you win your case, they're motivated to win and will work to ensure that your SSDI or SSI claim has the best possible chance of success. 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 disability claimant who is not represented by a legal professional still win an SSDI or SSI disability claim at an ALJ hearing? Yes, it's possible. However, the odds of winning a disability claim before an ALJ are markedly decreased when a claimant does not bring an attorney or representative to the hearing.
We recently asked readers across the U.S. who attended an ALJ hearing and found that 71% of them hired a lawyer for the hearing, and that 50% of those who had lawyers were approved for benefits compared to 23% of those who didn't. (For more statistics, see our article on the difference a lawyer makes.)
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 a representative, if you win. (We also have statistics on the average amount readers paid to their disability representatives.)
Though you aren't required to have an attorney in a disability claim (with an appeal to federal court being the exception), attending a hearing before a judge without the assistance of a legal professional can result in a lost opportunity to win disability benefits.
The disability claimants who do win their claims without the help of a lawyer may not obtain the most favorable "disability onset date," which can mean a smaller amount of backpay. The date of onset of the disability determines how much a claimant will receive in backpay, so being able to prove the earliest possible onset of disability is important for a Social Security disability or SSI claimant.
Example. Michael hires a disability attorney to represent him at his disability hearing. Prior to the hearing, Michael's attorney realizes that Michael's alleged onset date of disability (the date Michael became disabled) isn't correct, so he amends the onset date to a year earlier (the date Michael stopped working). If Michael is approved, he'll be entitled to another year's worth of benefits (worth an extra $18,000 in Michael's case).
In our example, if Michael had tried to represent himself, he probably wouldn't have understood he could adjust his onset date of disability and the extra back pay he could get because of it.
Learn more about onset date and backpay.
Before hiring a disability representative, here are some questions you might want to ask:
A disability attorney or advocate should have a ready answer for all of these questions, and should also be able to explain how the disability process works. Trust your instincts: if you're not comfortable with an attorney's responses, or if the attorney doesn't specialize in disability law, look elsewhere.
Many disability claimants wait until after they've been denied at the initial level to look for an attorney. For most claimants, this is a big mistake. That's because a legal professional can help you complete your initial application for benefits in a way that is accurate but persuasive. Claimants who complete applications on their own often make mistakes that their attorneys can't undo, from underestimating their physical limitations to overestimating their prior work responsibilities to choosing the wrong disability onset date.
What this means is that you should consider looking for a lawyer or disability firm that can help you at every stage of the process: from initial application, through reconsideration, and to a hearing, if necessary.
If you'd like help with your application, or to find out your chance of getting disability benefits, click for a free case evaluation with a legal expert.
Updated October 28, 2021