If you're thinking of applying for benefits from either of the federal programs for people with disabilities—Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI)—you might be wondering whether you should hire a lawyer to help you with your claim.
To find out more about the role of lawyers in obtaining SSDI and SSI benefits, we surveyed readers across the U.S. who went through the process of filing a claim and getting a decision. Here's what we learned about the difference hiring a lawyer can make.
Our survey showed that hiring a disability lawyer makes a big difference in the outcome of SSDI and SSI claims. When we looked at the outcomes for all readers who hired an attorney at some point in the process, the results showed that 60% were ultimately approved for benefits, compared to 34% of those who didn't have a lawyer's help. That means that, overall, having a lawyer nearly doubled applicants' chances of getting benefits. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report from 2017—the most recent data available—supports our survey respondents' experiences. The report found that disability applicants who used representatives were awarded benefits 2.9 times as often as those without.
That's the big picture. But you may have other questions. At what point is a lawyer's help more critical? Does the type of program you're applying for (SSDI or SSI) make a difference? A closer look at the survey results provides some answers.
The procedural steps are similar whether you're applying for SSDI or SSI. After you fill out and submit your application, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will first determine if you meet the non-medical eligibility requirements for the type of benefit you're applying for, such as having enough work credits to qualify for SSDI or meeting the asset limit for SSI. If you don't, you'll receive what Social Security calls a technical denial. If you do pass that first step, a claims examiner will then evaluate your application and medical evidence before approving or denying your application. For more details, see our article on the the Social Security disability determination process.
Few applications make it through both of these steps successfully. More than three-quarters of our readers reported that their initial applications were denied. But those who had help from a lawyer did somewhat better.
Only three in 10 readers (30%) hired an attorney to help them fill out their application and submit it to the SSA. Government statistics from 2022 (available as a PDF) show the same percentage of disability claimants had representation at the initial level. Of our survey respondents, 28% were approved for benefits at the initial stage, compared to 20% of those who completed the application on their own, without help.
This relatively modest (40%) improvement with a lawyer is probably due to a few factors. On the one hand, attorneys know the SSA's rules, and they know what information and medical evidence needs to be submitted to meet the SSA's definition of disability. On the other hand, most applicants get denied at the initial application stage anyway, partly because their medical conditions haven't yet worsened to the point of disability in the eyes of the SSA. As a result, a lawyer's help at this stage doesn't make as much of a difference as it does later (see below).
It's worth mentioning that applicants have other sources for help with filling out the application: disability advocates or representatives who aren't lawyers.
Only a little over half of our readers whose application was denied (52%) requested a hearing before a judge—a figure that's below the national statistics on appeals. (A report from the Government Accountability Office in 2019 showed that about 77% of applicants who were denied at reconsideration requested a hearing.) That's too bad, because people who either gave up or missed the deadline for filing an appeal passed up their best opportunity for getting disability benefits: at a hearing before an administrative law judge. And our survey showed that getting help from a lawyer at this stage improved those chances significantly.
First, a bit on the procedure at this stage of the process: After an application is denied, Social Security requires that claimants to go through a reconsideration review before they can request a hearing. (For details, see our article on reconsideration of SSDI/SSI denials.) Almost all reconsideration reviews lead to another denial—87%, according to 2021 government statistics. But the picture changes significantly when applicants get to the hearing stage.
Of our readers who requested a hearing, more than seven in ten (71%) hired a lawyer to help with their appeal. As our survey shows, that was a smart decision: A lawyer more than doubled the chances of a good outcome. Half of those with legal representation (50%) were approved for benefits after the hearing, compared to less than a quarter (23%) of those who represented themselves. When we view the survey results from another perspective, we see that readers who didn't get a lawyer's help were only slightly more likely to win benefits at the hearing stage than at the initial application.
These results aren't surprising. Experienced disability attorneys can help in several ways, including:
For more details, see our articles on the disability appeals process and working with an attorney at a Social Security disability hearing.
There are big differences between SSDI and SSI, even though Social Security administers both programs. SSDI is a type of insurance for people who've worked and paid taxes for years before becoming disabled. In contrast, SSI is a need-based program for disabled people with little or no income or assets, regardless of their work history. Our survey shows that SSI applicants generally have a more difficult time getting benefits than SSDI applicants. (For details, see our survey statistics on SSDI and SSI.) A lawyer's help makes a significant difference regardless of the program, but the attorney advantage is especially big for SSI applicants. Readers who applied for SSI and hired an attorney at some point in the process—typically before the hearing—were nearly three times as likely to win an approval as those who proceeded without a lawyer (68% compared to 25%).
It isn't easy to get Social Security disability benefits. As anyone who's been through it can tell you, it can be a long, exhausting process. But our survey reveals two important points that provide hope: Don't give up if your application is denied at first, because approval rates go up at the hearing stage. And if you want to increase your chances of success, seek the help of an experienced disability lawyer.
We also asked readers how they felt about their lawyers overall. The results seemed to be a reflection of the improved outcomes with legal representation. More than half of our readers (54%) said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their attorneys, while more than a quarter were dissatisfied on some level. When we looked more deeply at who was more likely to be satisfied with their lawyers, the results weren't surprising: Readers who ultimately got benefits were much more likely to be happy with their legal representation (71%). Also, readers were almost 20% more likely to be satisfied with lawyers who didn't take any payment for their help.
We also asked readers why they were or weren't satisfied with their lawyers. For those who weren't happy about the experience, the most common response by far was some variation on communication problems: lawyers who didn't stay in touch, neglected to keep applicants informed about the progress of their case, or failed to respond promptly to their questions. Readers who rated their lawyers positively most often mentioned their helpfulness, professionalism, and knowledge.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that it usually won't cost you to hire a lawyer, because the fee will be paid out of the disability award. If you don't win, the attorney gets nothing. (For more details, see our survey results on how much disability attorneys cost.)