If you're unhappy with the way your lawyer is handling your Social Security disability application ("claim"), you don't have to stick with them. But before you make the decision to fire your attorney and get a new representative, you should consider why you want to fire your lawyer and how it could affect you.
Disability claimants sometimes become frustrated with their lawyers because it takes so long for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to make a decision. But attorneys aren't usually able to shorten the time it takes for the SSA to process a claim or schedule a hearing (with few exceptions such as writing a dire need letter or when the claimant has a terminal illness).
Make sure that you have realistic expectations for how long the disability process takes and what your attorneys can and can't do to help your claim get approved faster.
You should consider where you are in the disability process before deciding whether to fire your attorney. Because disability lawyers get paid on contingency—meaning they don't get paid unless you win your case—you'll have to sign a document called a fee agreement each time you get a new lawyer. For this reason, many attorneys are often reluctant to represent somebody who fired their old representative because it complicates collecting their fees.
Fee agreements for disability lawyers or firms authorize your representative to collect 25% of any back due benefits you're entitled to if you win your claim (up to a maximum of $7,200). If you're close to your hearing date, your attorney is unlikely to waive their right to get paid for the time spent preparing for your case. Then, if you hire a new lawyer, both attorneys will have to file a fee petition with Social Security that describes the work they did on your case.
If the fee petition is granted, the attorneys are allowed to collect more than the $7,200 fee cap, so you might end up paying more out of your back pay than you would if you had stayed with your original attorney. And even if you fire your attorney, you're usually responsible for any out-of-pocket costs, such as copies of medical records, associated with preparing your case.
Firing your attorney isn't a decision that you should make lightly. If you're unhappy with your current representation, you should speak to your lawyer and explain your dissatisfaction. Honest communication with your attorney can help address your concerns and avoid the hassle, risk, and expense involved in hiring a new disability advocate.
If you do decide to seek new representation, here are some steps to help the transition go smoothly.
Inform your lawyer that you don't want them to represent you anymore. You can call or email your attorney or law firm. Giving them a heads up that you're about to formally decline their representation can make it easier for your new attorney to obtain your case file and collect fees.
Write a letter saying that you no longer want your lawyer to represent you. The letter doesn't have to be very long or involved. If you wish, you can briefly state the reasons why you want to end the attorney-client relationship. Ask your former attorney to submit a formal withdrawal to Social Security.
Submit a copy of your letter to the disability office handling your claim. If you're not at the hearing stage of the disability process, send the letter to your state Disability Determination Services. If you're waiting for a hearing or already have one scheduled, send the letter to your local Social Security field office.
Contact the SSA a few weeks after you've submitted your letter to make sure the agency doesn't still have your previous lawyer attached to your claim. You can ask the SSA to confirm in writing that your attorney has formally been withdrawn from representation. The agency can also provide you with your disability case file so you can give it to your new lawyer.
Disability claimants have many choices when it comes to their representative. Some attorneys work for large law firms that can also help them with Veterans' Administration disability benefits or workers' compensation claims. Other lawyers work for small firms or as solo practitioners and focus exclusively on Social Security disability cases.
Before you choose a new lawyer, it's a good idea to let your potential representative know what you didn't like about your previous attorney and ask questions about how the lawyer will handle your claim. Make sure that your new attorney or law firm is the right fit for you so that you can both get the most out of your working relationship.
For more information, see our article on finding a disability advocate for Social Security benefits.
Updated November 17, 2022