How Lawyers and Advocates Handle Disability Claims

How SSDI attorneys and disability advocacy firms develop medical evidence and a theory of your disability.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law

Hiring a Social Security disability lawyer or nonattorney advocate to handle your disability case is almost always a better idea than trying to navigate a complex system alone. SSDI lawyers and advocates perform a wide variety of tasks as part of their representation, including:

  • explaining how the disability process works
  • evaluating the strength of your case
  • helping you file your initial application or appeal
  • "developing" medical evidence (explained below)
  • preparing you for your disability hearing, and
  • representing you at your hearing.

Here, in more detail, is what you can expect when you hire an SSDI attorney or advocate. (This article also applies to legal representatives who handle SSI cases. Learn the difference between SSDI and SSI.)

What Happens When I First Call a Disability Attorney or Advocate?

When you first contact a lawyer or nonattorney advocate, either the representative or a staff member will explain to you how the disability process works. They will then conduct an initial interview to gather the basic facts of your case. The firm will use these facts to help determine if they will take your case. The interviews are usually done by phone, but you can ask to meet with someone in person.

Staff members are trained to spot cases that have a high likelihood of success. But with borderline cases, a legal professional usually reviews the file to make a final determination about whether the firm will represent you. If your case has little chance of winning on appeal, the firm will probably decline to represent you.

Will My Attorney or Advocate File My Claim?

Some SSDI attorneys won't help you file your initial disability claim because they only work on appeals. If you are just beginning the disability process, make sure you find a lawyer or advocate who can assist you with the paperwork and make sure everything is filed on time. You won't pay more for help with your application, because disability lawyers receive a fixed percentage of your disability back pay, and only if you win.

How Will My Attorney or Advocate Develop My Medical Evidence?

Your attorney or nonattorney advocate (or a staff member) will request the medical records needed to win your claim and submit them to the Social Security Administration (SSA) at the appropriate time.

When you first hire your Social Security disability attorney or advocate, you'll need to sign a medical privacy release that allows access to your medical records. The attorney or advocate will usually pay for these records for you until your case ends, at which time the firm will bill you for the cost.

Because Social Security frequently requires certain types of exams or tests needed to win a claim for disability, your representative will review your medical records to determine whether you need to undergo additional testing. The representative may ask the SSA to schedule a consultative examination (CE) with one of their doctors or ask that you get the required testing done on your own, if need be.

Your representative will also decide:

  • which doctors to ask for supportive statements on your functional limitations
  • which medical records are relevant to submit to the administrative law judge (ALJ) who will hear your appeal, and
  • what to do with bad evidence that could hurt your case.

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

How Will My Attorney or Advocate Help Me Get Ready for My Hearing?

It's not unusual for SSDI attorneys and advocates to wait until a month before a disability hearing to first speak to a client. Up to that point, your only contact with the law firm may be with paralegals or staff members. Nonattorney staff members are generally responsible for:

  • making sure "request for hearing" deadlines are met
  • requesting and logging medical records, and
  • communication with clients about pre-hearing matters.

As the hearing approaches, however, you should talk to the attorney who will represent you at the hearing.

Will the Hearing Prep Meeting Be in Person or by Phone?

Most disability attorneys and advocates speak with their clients by phone, but you can ask your representative to meet you in person if you wish.

Before your pre-hearing meeting or phone conference, your representative will have reviewed your file and determined what issues still need to be addressed. Make sure you have your medical records and other relevant documents handy if you need to refer to them during your meeting.

Is My Meeting With an Attorney Confidential?

Anything you say to your attorney is "privileged." This means your attorney can only share information with others that you say it's okay to share. If you aren't sure why the attorney needs to know certain information, you should ask your attorney to explain why the answer is important to your case.

Will My Representative Arrange Witnesses for Me?

The SSA allows you to bring a witness to testify about your disability, but because witnesses can be harmful or helpful, your attorney should decide if witness testimony is necessary to win your case. Your lawyer may be interested in asking your caregivers or former employers to write letters in support of your disability.

Questions to Prepare for Your Disability Hearing

Your attorney or advocate will review with you the questions you are likely to face during your hearing. Examples of common hearing questions are:

  • Can you describe your symptoms as specifically as you can?
  • Are you depressed or anxious?
  • When did you first become too sick to work?
  • Do you do any work now?
  • What treatments have you tried?
  • What medications do you take and what are their side effects?
  • Does your medication help you feel better?
  • If you take pain medication, do you ever take more than you're supposed to?
  • Do you abuse alcohol or illegal drugs? If so, are you seeking help?
  • Have you ever been incarcerated? If so, what for?
  • Do you have health insurance?
  • Can you take care of your personal hygiene?
  • Are you capable of cooking? Cleaning? Driving? Shopping?
  • Are there things you used to enjoy that you can't do anymore?
  • How do you spend an average day?
  • Can you lift a gallon of milk?
  • Can you walk at least a block?
  • Can you climb a flight of stairs?
  • Do you get along with others?
  • Can you read and write?
  • How far did you go in school?

You must answer all of these questions as honestly as you can—even if they're embarrassing or you feel ashamed of the answers. If you don't, your attorney can't represent you effectively. Remember that your representative is not there to judge you, but to help you win your claim.

Learn more about how to answer questions at a disability hearing.

How Will My Attorney Argue My Case?

Your disability lawyer will determine the best way to win your case. First, your lawyer will review your denial letter from Social Security to learn the reasons the agency denied your claim, so that these issues can be resolved in your favor. (For more information, see our article on denial notices.)

Next, your attorney will develop a "theory" of why you're disabled under Social Security disability law. Your lawyer will write a legal brief for the judge explaining the theory of the case. Lawyers use three main possible theories that attorneys or advocates can use to explain why someone's disabled. They can:

Using the Disability Listings

A listing is a description of an illness written by the Social Security Administration (SSA) that includes how severe the illness must be to qualify for benefits. If you meet the criteria in the description, you'll qualify for automatic approval of disability benefits.

To determine whether you meet a listing, your representative will first see if your illness is listed in Social Security's "blue book." If it is, your attorney will review the requirements of the listing and compare them to the evidence in your medical records. (For more information, see our section on listed disabilities.)

If additional testing is needed to meet the listing, your representative may request that an SSA doctor examine you or that you schedule the necessary tests with your physician. If your condition doesn't seem likely to meet the listing, the attorney will look to other possible theories.

Using Your Physical or Mental Limitations

If the SSA says you can do your past work, your lawyer must try to prove that you can't do your prior jobs because of your physical or mental limitations. Your lawyer will ask your treating doctor to fill out an RFC form to help with this process.

Using the Grid

Your attorney will then try to use the "grid" to prove that you can't "adjust to" (learn how to do) less demanding work. The grid is a system of rules developed by Social Security to decide if a person is able to work. The rules are based on the exertion level of a job (sedentary work, light work, or medium work) that an applicant can perform, along with the applicant's age and education level.

The grid is usually most helpful to older, less educated applicants who can perform only minimally active (sedentary or light) jobs. To win using the grid rules, it's especially important that you have supportive opinions from your treating physicians. For more information, see our series of articles on the disability grid.

Using "Less Than Sedentary" Status

If you don't meet a disability listing and can't "grid" out of work, your last chance of getting disability benefits is for your attorney to prove to the SSA that you can't do even a sedentary (sit-down) job. (The grid lays out the rules only for those who can do medium work, light work, or sedentary work.)

To prove you aren't capable of even sedentary work, your representative will use the following to show why you can't do various sit-down jobs:

  • the documented symptoms of your illness
  • the opinions of your treating doctors
  • your testimony, and
  • any other medical evidence in your file.

For example, if your doctor has said that you can't lift more than 10 pounds or sit more than two hours per day, this opinion will help prove that you're capable of "less than sedentary work," meaning that Social Security will have to find you disabled. (For more information, see our article on less-than-sedentary status.)

What Your Attorney Will Do at Your Disability Appeal Hearing

At your hearing in front of an ALJ, your disability lawyer will ask the "vocational expert" a series of questions called hypothetical questions. These "hypotheticals" are designed to rule out the possibility that someone with your limitations can work various jobs.

If the vocational expert names certain jobs that you should be able to do, your attorney will be able to ask the expert about the physical or mental requirements of those jobs. For more information, see our article on how an attorney uses hypotheticals at a disability hearing.

Learn more in general about what to expect at your disability hearing.

Updated May 11, 2023

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