Applicants for Social Security disability (or SSI disability) are very unlikely to find an attorney to represent them for free, even at legal aid offices. This is because attorneys who help disability claimants work on a contingency basis, meaning that they only get paid for their work if they win your case. In addition, fees paid to disability lawyers are approved by Social Security and are limited to certain amounts.
Disability attorneys do not require their fees to be paid up front. Instead, they collect a maximum of 25% of your retroactive benefits (backpay) or $6,000, whichever is less. Social Security pays your attorney directly out of your backpay award. In the unlikely event that your disability application is approved with no backpay award, your lawyer would not be entitled to collect a fee unless he or she submitted a special fee petition to Social Security and it was approved. But since applications take at least a month and usually much longer to process, there are always back payments owed to disability applicants.
We recently surveyed readers about how much Social Security paid their lawyers after they were approved for benefits. For many, the fee was between $3,000 and $4,000 of the backpay owed by Social Security. For details, see our survey statistics with the average fees paid to Social Security disability lawyers.
Attorneys will spend money to win your case, usually on things like copying and postage for gathering all of your medical records and submitting them to Social Security. Many attorneys will require you to pay these costs to them directly as the case goes forward. Social Security allows attorneys to charge claimants for reasonable costs before winning the case, but not for attorneys' fees.
Before you hire an attorney or representative for your case, make sure you understand how much you will be paying for their service and sign a written agreement that discusses reasonable costs.
There are non-profit law firms and legal aid organizations that help claimants with Social Security disability cases. However, even legal aid attorneys and nonattorney advocates who are registered with Social Security are permitted to collect fees from disability backpay to compensate them for the time they spend working on your case. And legal aid organizations often use the fees they earn from winning disability claims to fund other services they provide.
Many legal aid offices stopped providing representation for Social Security disability claims after a rule change in 2005 that required the Social Security Administration to pay lawyer fees in SSI cases directly to the attorney. This meant that SSI claimants would have an easier time finding lawyers to take their case. Today, many legal aid offices will represent clients only in Social Security overpayment situations, since it can be difficult to find a lawyer for help in these cases. (For more information, read our article about finding a lawyer for an overpayment problem.)
You may want to contact your local legal aid organization to see if they accept disability cases and what their fee policy is. You can find your local legal aid office in this directory from Legal Services Corporation. If you live near law schools, you can call them to see if they have a disability “clinic” where law students represent disability claimants, although you won't get the benefit of an experienced disability lawyer.