While only 37% of all initial applications for disability are approved, about 45% of cases heard by administrative law judges (ALJs) are approved (based on national averages for 2019/2020).
Why is there such a large statistical disconnect? There are several reasons. Sometimes, it is simply because some medical conditions will get worse over time, so that by the time a hearing is held (which can be up to two years following the filing of the disability application), a disability claim is simply stronger.
Another factor to consider is that applicants who don't think they have a strong claim for benefits decide not to appeal, leaving only the strong cases to get hearings. In a survey of our readers, we found that only 52% requested a disability appeal hearing after a denial, a figure that's close to national hearing statistics.
Other times, the passage of time before a hearing causes a disability applicant to "age into an allowance." For physical disabilities, the medical-vocational rules for considering whether someone is disabled offer a greater chance of disability approval for those over 50. For example, if someone goes from age 49 to age 50 while waiting for a hearing, they will be bumped up into a category that allows disability benefits more easily. The same is true for ages 55, 60, and 65. (Learn more about medical-vocational allowances.)
Many times, however, the difference in approval rates is due to this fact: for cases that are heard by ALJs, a disability lawyer is involved more often than not. In our survey of our readers, we found that 71% of them were represented by a lawyer at their ALJ hearing.
Disability lawyers know the details of Social Security's regulations and procedures, they help applicants prepare for hearings, and they assist in getting the proper medical evidence to Social Security, three factors that help them win cases. In our survey, we found that being represented by a lawyer at the hearing more than doubled the chances of winning: only 23% of those without a lawyer were approved for benefits, while 50% of our readers who had a lawyer were approved. Government statistics are even stronger; a government study found that disability claimants who brought a representative to their hearing were almost three times as likely to receive an approval as those who did not.
In fact, readers who didn't get a lawyer's help were only slightly more likely to win benefits at the hearing stage than at the initial application. The increase in approval chances when using a lawyer was even stronger for SSI applicants.
Lawyers want very much want to win their cases (that's how they get paid) and, therefore, they do everything possible to maximize their chances, particularly when it comes to gathering medical records and physician statements. (Read more about how disability attorneys prepare for hearings.)