You aren't required to hire a lawyer to assist you at your disability hearing, but bringing an experienced disability lawyer can really improve your chances of winning your claim. In fact, statistics show that a disability applicant who is represented by an attorney at the hearing level is twice as likely to be approved as an unrepresented applicant.
After Social Security denies your request for reconsideration (the first level of appeal), you'll have 60 days to request a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ). At your hearing, the ALJ will consider the medical evidence you've provided, your testimony, and the testimony of any other witnesses. The judge will then decide whether you're disabled.
The objective medical evidence in your medical records, such as test results and X-rays or MRIs, will probably be the most important factor in the judge's decision at the disability hearing level. And the ALJ will compare what's in your medical records to the answers you give at the hearing (your testimony) about your disability. Your lawyer can ask you questions so that your testimony supports your case.
The judge will also use your medical records to ask questions of the vocational expert (a jobs specialist) who will likely be at the hearing. Your lawyer will also be able to ask the expert questions. We'll discuss this more below.
So while a lawyer isn't required, the questions that your lawyer asks you and the vocational expert can make or break your claim.
Here are five ways that having a disability lawyer can help you win your disability claim at the hearing.
If your medical records are incomplete, the ALJ may have grounds to deny your claim. 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 which ones are relevant to your claim and should be submitted to the SSA.
Reviewing your records is important because it allows the attorney to determine whether any key test results or documentation are missing—and whether your case needs additional medical evidence—and to spot other issues that may arise at the hearing.
If there are gaps in your treatment history, or your medical records contain inconsistent reports, your lawyer will decide how to handle it. For more information, see our article on how disability attorneys develop medical evidence.
A disability lawyer will contact your treating physicians to obtain their written opinions (usually on a lengthy form) about your ability to work and how your medical condition limits you physically or mentally. Often, doctors are more likely to respond to an attorney's request than to a patient's.
If you don't have a doctor you've gone to regularly or the doctor you've seen doesn't support your claim, your disability lawyer can request that Social Security schedule a physical or psychological exam, or both (or even might arrange an appointment with a doctor outside Social Security).
You might be nervous before your hearing, which is normal. But some people tend to make mistakes answering questions when they're nervous. Your lawyer will probably want to practice asking you questions the judge might ask to help you prepare your answers. 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.
Your attorney will be very familiar with the procedure of hearings and will tell you what to expect. This can help lessen any fears you have before your hearing.
A vocational expert (VE) is a consultant hired by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to testify at your hearing about your ability to work based on your impairments. During the hearing, the ALJ will ask the VE questions about what type of jobs someone with your documented work restrictions could do, if any. These questions are called hypotheticals.
Here's an example of a hypothetical question: "Consider an individual of the same age, education, and work history as this claimant [applicant]. 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 any. If a VE is able to name jobs that exist, and the judge agrees, your claim will be denied.
But once the ALJ has finished questioning the VE, your lawyer will have a turn to "cross-examine" the VE. At this point, the knowledge and experience of a disability attorney are invaluable. If the VE tells the ALJ that you can do certain jobs, your attorney will be able to ask the VE 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 the VE their own series of hypothetical questions based on your medical records to counter the VE's testimony. Your lawyer will be more familiar with your medical record than the judge (ALJs often don't review your records until the morning of your hearing). So your lawyer can use supporting facts from your medical record (such as a doctor's limitation on bending, twisting, or stooping) that the ALJ may have overlooked. A good attorney will use these facts to ask hypothetical questions that lead the VE to state that you're unable to perform any jobs at all.
Without an attorney, it's extremely difficult for a disability applicant to do this successfully. For more information, see our article on the importance of the vocational expert's testimony.
Another benefit of being represented by a lawyer 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 familiarity 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.
To appeal a denied Social Security claim, you have to go through several levels of appeal, each handled by a different office or agency. Here are the four levels:
Learn more about the stages of appeal for a disability claim.
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're likely better off hiring a Social Security appeal lawyer. (Note that if you lose your appeal with Social Security and have to appeal to federal court, you will definitely need to hire a lawyer at that point.)
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 2017 found that disability applicants who used representatives at hearings 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.
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.
Updated May 30, 2023