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. Lawyers who help disability claimants work on a contingency basis, meaning that they only get paid for their work when they win a case, and they get paid only a one-time fee out of your back benefits. Also, Social Security has to approve all fees paid to disability lawyers, and they limit fees to certain amounts.
While you probably won't find a lawyer for free, Social Security disability attorneys offer free consultations where you can discuss your case and get some feedback at no cost.
Disability attorneys don't require their fees to be paid up front. Instead, the Social Security Administration (SSA) pays your representative directly out of your backpay award if you get approved. The fee is a maximum of 25% of your retroactive benefits (backpay) or $6,000, whichever is less. In the unlikely event that your disability application is approved with no backpay award, your lawyer wouldn't be entitled to collect a fee without submitting a special fee petition to Social Security and getting it approved. But since applications take at least a month and usually much longer to process, Social Security almost always owes back payments to disability applicants. Learn more about fee arrangements and fee petitions.
We recently surveyed readers after they were approved for benefits about how much their disability lawyers got paid. 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 your medical records and submitting them to the SSA. Social Security allows attorneys to charge claimants for reasonable costs like these before winning your case, but not for attorneys' fees. Many attorneys require you to pay these costs to them directly as the case goes forward, but some attorneys will cover the costs for you if you can't afford them.
Before you hire an attorney or representative for your case, make sure you understand how much you'll be paying for their service. Sign a written agreement with them that discusses reasonable costs.
Some nonprofit law firms and legal aid offices stopped providing representation for Social Security disability claims after a rule change in 2005. After that year, Social Security was allowed to pay lawyer fees in SSI cases directly to attorneys (before, this was allowed only for SSDI cases). What this meant was that SSI claimants started to have an easier time finding lawyers to take their case, so they didn't need legal aid organizations. 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.)
Some nonprofit law firms, community groups, and legal aid organizations do help claimants with Social Security disability cases. But even legal aid attorneys (and nonattorney advocates who are registered with Social Security) are allowed to collect fees from your 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. So, except in dire situations, legal aid organizations don't normally waive fees for helping you win your disability claim.
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 a law school, you could 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.
Whether you need help with your initial disability application or you want to file an appeal, you can try contacting a disability attorney for a free consultation. The person who answers the phone may ask you some screening questions first, to see if you're a likely candidate for disability benefits. You may have to try a few law firms before you're given a consultation.
The consultation is your chance to discuss the facts of your case with a legal professional who understands the disability process. Free consultations can take place on the phone or in person, and usually last from 30 minutes to an hour.
Here's what to expect during your free consultation with a disability lawyer.
Don't be scared by the hefty up-front fees charged by some lawyers—Social Security attorneys and representatives can only charge you a one-time fee if you win your case. If you don't win, there's little or nothing to pay. To take the next step, read our article on finding a legal professional to help you with your disability claim. Or, if you'd like a free consultation, you can sign up for a case evaluation with our partner, Premier Disability Services.
Updated November 19, 2021