How To Hire a Social Security Disability Lawyer: 5 Key Questions

Do I need a Social Security Disability Lawyer?

No.  The social security disability application and appeal process was designed to allow individuals to pursue a disability claim without needing a lawyer or a representative.  In fact, one does not need to be an attorney to be a social security disability representative.  The administrative law judge hearing does not have the strict evidentiary rules as is typical of courtroom settings in state or federal court, so going to an ALJ hearing without an attorney does not entail the risk that you will ruin your case by failing to follow some arcane rules.

Despite these facts, however, the majority of social security disability claimants that take their claim to an administrative law judge hearing have either a disability lawyer or representative.  Is this just the result of the U.S. having too many lawyers that have taken advantage of the disabled public’s fears in pursuing a disability claim?  Perhaps, but a lawyer skilled in the social security disability attorney can make the difference between winning and losing.  Among the important contributions an experienced local social security disability lawyer specialist can make are the following:

  • Understanding the basis of disability under the rules and regulations, and working to ensure that the testimony and medical evidence is directed to the crucial issues;
  • Helping direct the claimant’s hearing preparation and testimony to the relevant facts and issues that the ALJ wants to know about;
  • Understanding through experience what issues are important to specfic administrative law judges (they are all a bit different);
  • Being “at the claimant’s side” in the process and providing reassurance that the case is moving forward successfully;
  • Making sure the relevant medical records are submitted to the social security administration;
  • Securing a medical source statement from treating doctors that addresses the precise issues and impairments that are critical to winning.

Are disability lawyers free?

Social security disability lawyers are no different than other attorneys or any profession: they are not able to work for “free”.  Legal aide services are the only places where a lawyer could represent you without a fee in a disability case.  These agencies are funded by the Legal Service Corporation, which in turn is funded by the U.S. government.  In general, however, legal aide will not take a case if there is the possibility that the individual had the resources to hire an attorney in the private sector.  

Social security disability lawyers work on a contigent fee basis: we receive a fee only if we win your disability case. The social security administration must approve the fee that the disability lawyer charges.

What percentage does a disability lawyer get?

Disability lawyers are limited by the federal government to a fee not in excess of 25% of the retroactive benefits to be paid on the winning disability case.  Most disability lawyers limit that 25% fee to no more than $6000 because social security regulations do not require government approval of all legal work performed by the disability attorney. Here are some examples of how this 25% or $6000, whichever is less, fee arrangement works:

  • John Smith wins his case. His retroactive benefits are $4000.  His disability attorney’s fee will be $1000.
  • Johanna Smith wins her case.  Her retroactive benefits are $20,000.  Her disability attorney’s fee will be $5000.
  • Fred Flinstone win his case.  His retroactve benefits are $50,000.  His disability attorney’s fee will be $6,000.

 Is it better to have a lawyer for Disability?

In my opinion “yes” but nor just any lawyer.  In my 25 years of handling only social security disability cases it has become clear to me that there is a widely held view that “you have to get a lawyer to get disability”.  I often have the feeling people believe that all they need is a person with “J.D” at the end of their name.  But what is important is not just being a lawyer.  What is important to hiring a lawyer who specializes in social security disability and practices day-in, day-out before the Administrative Law Judges in your area.

How long does it take for a lawyer to get your disability?

Another misconception is that hiring a lawyer will reduce the waiting time for a favorable decision.  This is incorrect.  Unfortunately, there are unscruptulous disability representatives that will promise “expedited” handling of a disability claim.  The social security administrative treats all cases the same, and no one attorney or representative firm can get their clients ahead of others in line.

It is, however, true that experienced and competent social security disability lawyers closely monitor case progress, and know when there are signs of problems or mistakes that have bogged a case down. But in general, you should expect the same delays whether you hire a disability attorney or go it alone.

Can I fire my disability lawyer?

In general yes, but you need to read and understand the Fee Agreement you have signed with the attorney.  People call me all the time saying that they want to fire their existing attorney and hire me.  Bar rules in Texas, and probably most states, governing attorney conduct do not allow an attorney to poach another attorney’s client.  But even if the rules of ethics were not a problem, I would be unwilling to take a client from another attorney.  Its not that we attorneys are a tight nit club that watches one another’s backs (though that might be nice) but rather disability claimants often want to fire their attorneys over the fact that the case is “taking too long”.  As I noted above, the delays in securing disability benefits have nothing to do with attorneys. The delay is a function of the high number of persons filing disability claims, the limited resources social security has to process the claims, and a bit a government “slowness”.

If your lawyer is not meeting your expectations, you at least owe them the courtesy of making your complaints known and giving them the opportunity to explain or recognize their mistakes. But if your attorney is simply ignoring you and is unwilling to do better, a change may be in your best interest.

If you fire your disability attorney, most will waive their right to charge a fee for any work they have done.  If, however, the disability lawyer has done a lot of work on your case, and feels your discharge is unjustified, they may retain the right to charge a fee.  They are not, however, able to charge a fee unless is it approved by social security or the Administrative Law Judge.  Most importantly, if you feel a fee is not justified,  you will have the opportunity to tell the judge why you object to the fee request from you former disability attorney.