Do You Need an Attorney to Appeal a Social Security Disability Denial?

While you are not required to have a lawyer at a Social Security Disability hearing, your chances of winning improve if you do.

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You are not required to hire an attorney to assist you at your disability hearing; however, an experienced disability attorney will greatly improve your chances of winning your claim. In fact, statistics show that a disability claimant (applicant) who is represented by an attorney at the hearing level is twice as likely to be approved as an unrepresented claimant.

After your request for reconsideration (the first level of appeal) has been denied, you may request a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ). At your hearing, the ALJ will consider the medical evidence you have provided, your testimony, and the testimony of any other witnesses to decide if you are disabled. Objective medical evidence is the most important component at the disability hearing level. The ALJ uses your medical records to assess your testimony about your disability, and to formulate questions to pose to a vocational expert (VE) who will likely be at the hearing.

Here is how having a disability lawyer can help you win your disability claim at the hearing.

Gathering and Assessing Your Medical Records

If your medical records are incomplete, or there are inconsistent reports or gaps in your treatment history, the ALJ may have grounds to deny your claim. Therefore, one of the most important services a disability attorney can perform is gathering the proper medical records and submitting them to the court. Although you can request records yourself, an attorney can usually get them more quickly. An attorney will also know when your medical records need updating.

In addition to contacting physicians and medical facilities to obtain your medical records, a disability attorney will review the records in detail and decide if they should be submitted to the SSA. This is important because it allows the attorney to determine whether your case needs additional medical evidence and whether any key test results or documentation is missing spot other issues that may arise at the hearing.

For more information, see our article on how disability attorneys develop medical evidence.

Getting Doctors' Opinions

A disability lawyer will also contact your treating physicians to obtain their written opinions (usually on a lengthy form) about your ability to work. Often, doctors are more likely to respond to an attorney's request than to a patient's. Additionally, if your medical history is insufficient to support your claim, a disability attorney can request that Social Security schedule psychological or physical exams.

Preparing You for Questioning

You may be nervous before your hearing, which can make you more likely to make a mistake. Your attorney will be very familiar with the procedure of hearings than you will be, and can tell you what to expect. This can help allay any fears you have before your hearing.

Your lawyer will no doubt want to practice asking you questions the judge might ask and helping you with your answers (testimony). Being well prepared to answer the judge's questions can calm your nerves and make it less likely that you'll say something that might inadvertently hurt your case.

Questioning the Vocational Expert at the Hearing

A vocational expert (VE) is a consultant hired by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to testify at your hearing as to his or her opinion about your ability to work based on your impairments. During the hearing, the ALJ will ask the VE questions about your ability to work based on certain documented work restrictions. These questions are called hypotheticals; here is an example: "Consider an individual of the same age, education, and work history as this claimant. Consider that the individual can frequently carry ten pounds or more and sit or stand at least six hours a day. What jobs could this person do?" The VE would then name a number of jobs that a person with those abilities could perform. If a VE affirms your ability to work, and the judge agrees, your claim will be denied.

However, once the ALJ has finished questioning the VE, your attorney (or nonattorney advocate) will have a turn to cross-examine the VE. At this point, the knowledge and experience of a disability attorney is invaluable. If the VE tells the ALJ that you can do certain jobs, your attorney will be able to cross-examine the VE about whether those jobs are available in significant numbers, as well as what the physical or mental requirements of those other jobs are, to show that there aren't actually jobs available for you to do.

Your attorney can ask a series of hypotheticals based on your medical records to counter the VE's testimony. Because the attorney is more familiar with your medical record (ALJs often don't review your records until the morning of your hearing), he or she can use supporting facts that the ALJ may have overlooked. A good attorney will use these facts to create hypotheticals that lead the VE to state that you are unable to perform any jobs at all. Without an attorney, it's extremely difficult for a claimant to do this successfully. For more information, see our article on the importance of the vocational expert's testimony.

Using Personal Knowledge of the ALJ

Another factor to consider is that disability attorneys are familiar with the personalities and decision-making processes of the ALJs in their area. Your lawyer may have conducted hearings before this particular ALJ before and will know their "style" in advance. This is a tremendous benefit, because going into the hearing, an experienced disability attorney will know best how to handle any weaknesses in your case and how to play up the strengths of your case, given his or her knowledge of the ALJ.

In addition, a disability lawyer can help you skip the hearing and go straight to an approval if you are eligible for an on-the-record decision. If you want to appeal a denied Social Security Disability claim and are considering hiring a representative, read our article on how a disability lawyer will handle your claim or arrange a free consultation with a local attorney.

Will Your Outcome Be Different If You Hire a Disability Lawyer?

Can you appeal a disability denial by yourself? Yes. But unless your case is very clear cut and the evidence points strongly to your disability, you are likely better off hiring an attorney. We surveyed thousands of readers, and 60% of readers with lawyers were approved for disability benefits compared to 34% of those who didn't use an attorney. Similarly, a government report from the same year found that disability applicants who used representatives were allowed benefits almost three times as often as those without. For the details, see our article on whether hiring a disability lawyer helps your chances.

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