If you're planning to apply for federal disability retirement or to appeal after your application was denied, you might not need to hire an attorney to represent you. Some federal employees successfully navigate the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's (OPM's) bureaucracy and complete a successful application, on their own.
But if you're a Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) or Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) employee and you've decided to hire an attorney to help you with your application or appeal, it's important that you get the right representative for your case. This article will list the steps you should take to find a federal disability retirement lawyer who can best represent you.
You don't have much time to make the decision to hire an attorney when OPM denies your claim for federal disability retirement. Start researching attorneys early. And, at the very least, have a list of attorneys that you'll call when you decide you want to hire an attorney.
There are several resources you can use to find federal disability retirement lawyers, including:
There are many attorneys and non-attorneys who handle federal disability retirement claims. There's no rule that says the advocate you hire must be an attorney. However, you can't get representation fees reimbursed by the MSPB (Merit Systems Protection Board) if you hire a non-attorney advocate.
There are some advantages to hiring an attorney to represent you in your federal disability retirement application or appeal. Attorneys have special qualifications non-attorney advocates don't have, including the following:
Non-attorneys don't have these requirements. If a non-attorney advocate messes up your claim, misses a deadline, or causes you to lose entitlement to a benefit through negligence or ignorance, there's not much you can do to hold the advocate accountable. Sure, you can sue, but to be successful, you would need to:
You should verify that any attorney you're considering is actively licensed and not subject to discipline. (Believe it or not, some attorneys whose licenses have been suspended are still practicing law.) The state bar where the attorney is licensed can verify the following for you:
Licensed attorneys should be more than happy to tell you the state(s) they are licensed in and how to verify that the license is in good standing—with all of the states the attorney is licensed in.
Plan to invest a little time and money in consultations with two to three different federal disability attorneys. Each lawyer's style is different—the way they approach cases and interact with clients will differ.
Take the time to interview all the attorneys you're considering. Then, pick an attorney whose communication style and approach to a case make you comfortable. That way, if your federal disability retirement case gets challenging (or if your application is denied), you'll have confidence in the attorney you've chosen.
If your application for federal disability retirement benefits is denied and you need to appeal, having an attorney with experience representing employees before the MSPB is critical. As a practical matter, the MSPB is the last chance you'll have to get your disability retirement granted. As such, you'll want to make sure your federal disability attorney knows:
How do you find out if the attorney has handled disability retirement appeals before the MSPB? Ask. When it comes to federal disability retirement appeals, the size of the law firm doesn't matter—the attorney's experience does. You don't want to pay a high-profile attorney a lot of money just to lose your claim because the attorney didn't get to know the rules of the MSPB forum.
Don't be afraid of small firms and sole practitioners. A lawyer who knows how to appeal a federal disability retirement case before the MSPB will be much more valuable to you than an inexperienced attorney with a swanky office.
If you're going to meet a federal disability lawyer, the attorney will need certain information to have a meaningful discussion about your case. If you're hiring an attorney to help you apply to OPM for federal disability retirement, be prepared to provide:
If you're hiring an attorney to help you challenge OPM's denial of federal disability retirement, you should provide the attorney with:
If an attorney doesn't ask to see some of this documentation at that first meeting, you should be a bit wary. The lawyer will need to verify the information in these documents to estimate any of the following:
And if you have questions for the attorney, write them down ahead of time so you don't forget to ask.
There are many good attorneys who handle federal disability retirement applications and appeals. But unlike attorneys who help with Social Security disability claims, federal disability retirement lawyers all charge different types of fees. You'll find attorneys who use:
Some attorneys charge low fixed fees to help with your federal disability retirement application, but very high hourly rates for an MSPB appeal. Some attorneys charge only for the application and won't represent you before the MSPB. Others only represent applicants appealing to the MSPB.
Make sure you know what you're getting and that the price is fair and that you can live with it—even if you lose. Be candid with the attorney you want to hire—if you can't afford the fees, tell the attorney what you can afford. There might be room to negotiate, so prepare to propose some different fee arrangements that you could afford.
No matter how much you seem to click with a particular attorney, don't make your decision on the spot. Sleep on it. You need to take a little time to make sure you're comfortable with your attorney's:
That way, even if your application or appeal is denied, you'll feel that you got your "day in court."
Updated October 4, 2022