If you decide to hire someone to represent you at your Social Security disability hearing, you can choose either a disability attorney or a nonattorney advocate.
Generally, in both cases, the person you hire will not be paid unless you win your disability claim; likewise, both are paid directly by the Social Security Administration (SSA) out of your back payment benefits. Both attorneys and nonattorney advocates are entitled to the same fee amount for representing a disability applicant.
What Is the Difference Between an Attorney and Nonattorney Advocate?
The biggest differences between an attorney and a nonattorney advocate (or representative) are their education levels and training.
Attorney. To become an attorney, an individual must have the following qualifications:
- a bachelor’s degree (four-year college degree)
- a juris doctorate (J.D.) degree (usually a three-year program of legal studies), and
- admission to a state bar. Membership in a state bar requires:
- passing a rigorous bar exam
- passing a criminal background check, and
- completion of continuing legal education courses.
Nonattorney advocate. The SSA has established the following requirements to get paid directly by Social Security for acting as a nonattorney representative/advocate:
- a bachelor’s degree or “equivalent qualifications derived from training and work experience”
- passage of a short written exam administered by the SSA
- passage of a criminal background check
- professional liability insurance, and
- completion of continuing education courses.
Pros of Hiring a Disability Attorney Versus a Nonattorney Representative
When deciding whether to hire a disability lawyer versus a nonlawyer representative, you should consider the following pros of hiring a lawyer:
- Attorneys are bound by professional conduct rules and ethical obligations to zealously represent their clients, while nonattorney representatives are not held to the same standard (but this does not mean they are unethical).
- Attorneys are bound to keep anything you tell them confidential due to the attorney-client privilege, while nonattorney representatives are not.
- Attorneys have many years of specialized training, which may better enable them to spot and resolve potential legal issues and to craft legal theories for reasons you should get benefits.
- Attorney representatives can appeal your claim to the federal district court level, while nonattorney representatives cannot, and
- You can file a complaint against an attorney through your state’s grievance commission if you feel your attorney did not act in your best interest; there is no such recourse with nonattorney representatives.
Statistics show that attorneys have higher approval rates at the hearing level. These numbers are sometimes disputed by nonattorney representatives, however, who say that the statistics for nonlawyer representatives reflect hearings where the claimant is represented by a family member or other untrained individual.
In a recent survey we sent to our readers, we compared disability applicants' outcomes using disability lawyers versus using nonlawyer representatives. The approval rates using nonlawyer representatives were about midway between approval rates for readers with lawyers and those who represented themselves. For the details, see our survey statistics on whether it makes sense to use a nonlawyer representative
Making Sure You're Hiring an Attorney
If it is important to you that your representative is a trained and licensed attorney, be sure to ask directly whether he or she is a member of the bar, because nonattorney representative firms can use misleading titles such as:
- legal representative
- claimant representative
- disability representative, or
- disability advocate.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with these titles, they can be confusing and, occasionally, misleading.
Hiring a General Practice Attorney Versus a Disability Attorney
Attorneys can practice all types of law in the state where they are licensed, meaning an attorney might only dabble in disability law, but most lawyers who practice Social Security disability law at all specialize in disability. If you hire an attorney, make sure the attorney specializes in Social Security disability law, or disability law and one or two other closely-related areas like workers' compensation, long-term disability insurance, or Medicare law.
Nonattorney representatives have only disability clients, which means their knowledge is more focused than that of a general practice attorney.
It is important when choosing a representative (lawyer or nonlawyer) to know how many disability claims he or she wins at the ALJ hearing level. You should also ask how many claims the representative takes to the hearing level, because law firms and nonattorney groups will frequently refuse to represent a disability claimant if they feel there is little chance of success so that they can keep their approval statistics high.
Finding a Local Disability Lawyer
If you've decided to hire a disability lawyer/attorney, you can use our lawyer locator to find an experienced disability lawyer in your area.