If you're thinking of applying for disability benefits from either Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you might be wondering whether you can do it on your own or you need help. The Social Security Administration (SSA) allows any applicant to have an authorized representative (or "rep"). These representatives may or may not be lawyers. Most people understand at least something about the role of a lawyer, but they may be less familiar with nonlawyer disability reps (who often call themselves "disability advocates"). So when we surveyed readers who recently went through the process of applying for SSI or SSDI, we asked about their experiences working with nonlawyer reps.
Basically, a disability representative helps you with your SSDI or SSI case and deals with the SSA on your behalf. Anyone can act as a rep (unless that person has been disqualified from doing so). But since the SSA changed its rules and no longer requires paid disability representatives to be attorneys, many large companies have sprung up, employing hundreds of nonlawyer reps who work on disability cases for a fee (more on that below).
A relatively small proportion of our readers used nonlawyer reps during their Social Security disability cases. About one in ten (11%) had these disability advocates help them with their applications, compared to three in ten who enlisted a lawyer's help at this stage. A similar proportion (12%) used nonlawyer reps at the appeal hearing, but almost six times as many (71%) hired an attorney when they moved to the appeal stage.
Our survey showed that readers who had help from nonlawyer reps were more likely to get benefits than those who went through the process on their own, but less likely than those who hired lawyers at some point in the process. Nearly half (46%) of readers who used nonlawyer advocates told us their applications were ultimately approved, compared to less than a third (31%) of those who represented themselves. In contrast, nearly two-thirds (60%) of readers who used a disability lawyer won SSDI or SSI benefits.
In general, SSDI and SSI applications are much less likely to be approved at the initial application stage (before an appeal), regardless of representation. But here again, our survey showed that the approval rates with nonlawyer reps (24%) fell midway between approvals for readers with legal representation (28%) and no representation at all (20%). Once applicants got to the appeal stage, their chances of getting an award increased significantly, compared to the application stage, when they worked with a lawyer or nonlawyer rep. In contrast, there was very little difference in outcomes at the appeal stage for readers who continued to represent themselves—a large majority still got denied.
These results aren't surprising. Experienced disability representatives are familiar with the procedures and requirements for Social Security disability. They know what kind of medical evidence you need to support your claim, how to track down critical medical records and doctors' opinions, and when those records need updating.
Also, attorney representatives know how to prepare you for questioning at the hearing, and they have the training and experience to cross-examine the vocational expert in order to strengthen your case. They also know if it's critical to have a medical expert (doctor) testify at your hearing. (Government statistics show that when medical experts testify at hearings, claimants were 1.6 times more likely to be approved for Social Security disability benefits than other applicants.) In addition, disability attorneys are familiar with the local administrative law judges who hear these appeals. That knowledge can help them anticipate any weaknesses and strengths in your case that a particular judge is likely to focus on. (For more details, see our articles on the role of attorneys in Social Security disability appeals and FAQs on Disability Advocates.)
In order to be paid for their assistance, disability advocates who aren't lawyers must meet certain requirements, including having a bachelor's degree (or equivalent training and work experience), passing a written exam on the Social Security disability procedures, and completing continuing education courses. And disability reps can charge a fee for their work only if they win the case (what's known as a contingency fee). If the SSA approves your disability application (and your representative is registered to receive direct payments), the agency will pay your representative a percentage of your past-due benefits (or "back pay"). If you don't receive an award, the rep doesn't get paid. Under SSA rules, the payment can't be more than 25% of the award, up to a maximum of $6,000.
Our survey showed that nonlawyer reps received payments that were slightly less, on average, than what disability attorneys were paid. After breaking those results down, we saw that the fees charged by nonlawyer reps for help with the initial application were sometimes less than lawyers' fees. For cases that went to hearing, however, the fees were the same for lawyers and nonlawyer reps.
Our survey showed that more than four in ten readers (42%) who used nonlawyer reps were able to find advocates who took no payment for helping them with their applications (known as "pro bono" representation). It's likely that many of these advocates were social workers or staff at public assistance offices or disability rights centers (or prisons). Some others may have simply been the applicants' friends or family members. However, it's worth pointing out that these pro bono advocates are much less likely to be willing or able to represent you at a disability hearing. So it can be more difficult to find nonattorney reps who will help you for free at this stage of the process.
As we've seen, our survey shows that you're more likely to receive Social Security benefits when you get help from a representative—and even more likely when that representative is a lawyer. The lawyer advantage is especially pronounced at the appeal stage. (For details, see our surveys results showing the difference a disability lawyer makes.)
Our readers were also somewhat more likely to be satisfied with their legal representatives than nonlawyer reps. More than a third (38%) of those with nonlawyer advocates told us they were satisfied or very satisfied with their representatives, compared to nearly half (48%) of the readers with legal representation.
All in all, disability attorneys are more likely to get results for applicants than nonlawyer advocates, and their fees are about the same (when they take payment at all). The choice between an attorney and a nonlawyer rep may depend on your particular circumstances and disability, as well as whether you can find pro bono help. (See our article on hiring a disability attorney or a nonlawyer advocate for more information on this choice.)