What these terms mean depends on who you talk to. The Social Security Administration refers to all people who help or speak for disability applicants as “claimants' representatives,” or “reps.” There are lawyers who are disability representatives and nonlawyers who are disability representatives.
Social Security disability advocate means pretty much the same thing as disability representative, and can mean either a lawyer or a nonlawyer who helps people with their disability cases. An advocate is simply someone who supports you and fights for your cause; in the world of Social Security disability, this means an advocate answers your questions, works with your doctors to get the proper records, represents you at hearings, and generally helps you win disability benefits.
In short, if you decide to hire someone to represent you at your Social Security disability hearing, you can choose either a disability attorney advocate or a nonattorney advocate.
Both lawyer advocates and nonlawyer advocates are regulated by Social Security in the fees they charge, and they generally charge the same fees. Both types of Social Security disability advocates are required to work on “contingency," meaning they get paid only if you win your case.
Whether they are lawyers or nonlawyers, advocates can only charge 25% of the backpay award you receive (the lump sum of monthly benefits going back to when you first became disabled or applied for benefits), up to a maximum of $6,000. Even disability advocates who work for legal aid agencies almost always charge 25% of disability backpay for their services.
In addition, both lawyer and nonlawyer advocates can charge fees for out-of-pocket costs, such as copying and postage.
We surveyed readers about how much they ended up paying their representatives. For the details, see our article with survey results on how much disability advocates charged their clients.
A disability advocate who’s an attorney has gone to college, graduated from three years of law school, and passed the state’s bar exam to be admitted to the state’s bar association of attorneys. In law school, the advocate learned how to spot legal issues and develop legal theories, glean the law from reading prior cases, cross-examine witnesses, and write legal briefs, all of which are required to properly represent a client in front of Social Security.
In contrast, there are no requirements for acting as a nonlawyer disability advocate. However, to have their fee paid directly by Social Security out of their client’s backpay, a nonattorney advocate must either have gone to college or have training and work experience that’s considered equivalent, pass a written exam given by Social Security on Social Security procedures, and pass a criminal background check. Nonlawyer advocates do not need to go to law school or pass a bar exam.
Additionally, attorneys are bound by the “attorney-client privilege,” which prevents them from divulging a client’s sensitive and potentially embarrassing information. They are also bound by professional conduct rules requiring them to competently represent their clients, charge only reasonable out-of-pocket costs, return phone calls within a reasonable time period (or otherwise respond to your requests for information), and keep you up to date on the status of your claim. If you feel your attorney is violating these rules, you can file a grievance with their state bar. There are no parallel or similar rules or requirements for nonlawyer advocates.
Finally, a nonattorney advocate can’t handle your appeal after the Appeals Council step; only a disability lawyer can represent you in federal district court.
For more information, see our article on hiring a disability attorney vs. nonlawyer advocate.
In 2004, Congress passed the Social Security Protection Act of 2004, partially to address the huge backlogs of disability claimants (applicants). The act temporarily allowed Social Security to pay nonattorney advocates who helped claimants by directly withholding a portion of the claimant's backpay owed by Social Security. The thinking was that there weren't enough disability lawyers available to help claimants, and that allowing non-attorney advocates to represent claimants would help speed claims through the system, since cases would be better developed by the time they came to Disability Determination Services or an administrative law judge. The act approved Social Security's paying nonattorneys for only five years, but it has since been extended.
Since the act was passed, several huge factory-like legal firms have popped up, employing hundreds of nonattorney disability advocates. These firms have streamlined the way the advocates help claimants, so that each advocate spends very little time with a claimant but is able to handle hundred of claimants' files per year.
Your chances of winning Social Security disability benefits or SSI are higher if you’re represented by a disability advocate, especially if you hire an attorney. Disability advocates know the medical evidence you need to win benefits for your particular condition and the ins and outs of Social Security’s rules and shortcuts. Disability attorneys also know how to cross-examine the vocational expert at an appeal hearing and how to make sure you’re properly prepared for questioning at your hearing. This knowledge adds up to giving a leg up to those who are represented by disability advocates, especially those who are attorneys. In fact, we surveyed readers who had recently been through the disability process, and our results support this conclusion. For details, see our survey results on hiring a nonlawyer advocate and the value of hiring a disability lawyer. (And for more information, see our article on whether you should hire a disability advocate or go it alone.)
If you know anyone who’s recently won disability benefits, you might ask if they can recommend their disability advocate. If you get a disability lawyer’s name through this route, make sure the lawyer is in good standing with the state bar and not subject to any discipline.
If a personal recommendation doesn’t work out, Nolo offers a directory of disability advocates that provides comprehensive profile for Social Security disability lawyer advocates in your area. Nolo has confirmed that every listed attorney has a valid license and is in good standing with their bar association.