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 lawyer. Most disability claimants think they can't afford a lawyer, but a lawyer can only charge you if Social Security approves you for benefits, at which point the lawyer's fee is taken out of the back payments that Social Security will owe you. (The fee can be no more than 25% of your backpay, up to a maximum of $6,000.)
Statistically, the vast majority of Social Security Disability (SSDI/SSD) and SSI claims are denied at the initial claim and reconsideration levels, whether or not a disability claimant (applicant) is represented by an attorney or non-attorney disability advocate. (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 compared to 20% of those who didn't.)
For this reason, most SSDI 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. An attorney should have several years of invaluable SSDI and SSI claim experience to lend to a claimant's disability case and will know what a judge will be looking for with a particular medical condition, and will know what questions to ask your doctor and what medical tests to order.
Because disability attorneys get paid on contingency (only if you win), they are motivated to win and will 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 disability claimant who is not represented by an attorney still win an SSDI or SSI disability claim at an ALJ hearing? Yes, it is 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 an attorney or representative, if you win. (We also have statistics on the average amount readers paid to their disability lawyers.)
Though an attorney or representative is not 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. (Here's why.)
The disability claimants who do win their claims without the help of a lawyer may not obtain the most favorable "disability 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.