Let me start by saying that in December of 2017, the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) published a study which found that claimants who had representatives were awarded benefits at a nearly 3 times higher rate than those without representatives. That alone tells me that it’s not a question of if you should hire an attorney, it’s a question of when you should hire one.
My recommendation is to hire a disability lawyer as early as possible. This is likely the most important thing going on in your life. The outcome of a disability claim could result in lifetime benefits to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. You should do everything you can to improve your odds of winning your disability claim in a timely manner.
Cons of Hiring a Disability Attorney
The only con of hiring a disability attorney is the cost, but you only pay this fee if you win. The fee that disability attorneys charge is statutorily fixed at 25% of your past due benefits. They do not have any rights to your future benefits. That amount; however, is capped at $6,000. Average fees are around $4,500 for an SSD only claim and $2,000 for an SSI only claim.
Claimants that are eligible for both SSD and SSI typically pay a fee somewhere in between those amounts. Because the fee is a percentage of your past due benefit, a larger attorney fee would reflect a larger past due benefit amount that makes its way into your pocket. Personal injury attorneys usually charge 1/3 of a personal injury award. Those fees are not capped. Having a disability attorney, by comparison, seems like a bargain.
Theoretically a claimant could do all the work on their own, receive a favorable decision and not have to pay an attorney fee, but a portion of your backpay seems like a small price to pay in light of the fact that represented claimants are awarded at a rate of nearly 3 times that of non-represented people.
Pros of Hiring a Disability Attorney
SSDI Initial Application & SSDI Appeal Help
I often hear that claimants should try to get disability benefits on their own at first and only hire an attorney if the claim needs to go to a hearing. This advice comes from friends, family and sometimes even from Social Security employees. In some cases, this is actually not bad advice.
SSDI Paperwork Help
At this level you are mainly responsible for filling out SSDI paperwork, responding to requests for additional information and likely attending a consultative examination.
If you are organized and have a fine attention to detail, you could very well navigate this level, on your own, without the help of an attorney.
- Filling out an initial application
- Updating the administration as to your medical treatment
- Ensuring that the administration actually obtains that evidence
- Providing SSA with additional supporting evidence
These are the parts of the disability application process that some people can do on their own. That being said, an error here or an omission there can easily result in a permanent loss of certain benefits or a year to two-year delay in obtaining your benefits.
Another interesting fact to keep in mind is that if you hire an attorney at the initial level, the fee that you end up having to pay will likely be lower than the average fee quoted above. This typical reduction in fee is because your past due benefits will be lower as a result of your decision coming faster.
Disability Hearing Level: What to Expect
If you appeal your claim after you are denied at the initial and reconsideration levels, your file will be transferred to the Office of Hearing Operations (“OHO”). OHO is responsible for ensuring that your claim is heard by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).
Benefits of Disability Lawyer During SSDI Hearing
Without a doubt, this is the level where the benefits of a disability attorney are the strongest. Claimants at this level will be required to present their case in front of a judge. You will want disability lawyer on your side who has the necessary knowledge of the rules and regulations of Social Security Disability law. That knowledge is required to help navigate your claim through each step in the 5-step determination process.
If you did not have an attorney at the initial level, your attorney may find errors or omissions in your application and prior unfavorable decisions.
Your SSD attorney will also be responsible for obtaining updated or missing medical records. He or she should work with you in obtaining RFCs and other helpful pieces of evidence that do not typically make their way into your file absent attorney guidance.
Additionally, an attorney can explain to you what to expect at the hearing. He or she should go over the types of questions that you will be asked at the hearing. You will get advice about how to answer those questions, truthfully of course, in a way that does not harm your case. All of this will make you much more comfortable and relaxed at your actual hearing.
At the disability hearing, your attorney will likely cross-examine any experts and ensure that your case is presented in the best possible way.
Hiring a Disability Attorney
If I were applying for disability benefits, I would hire a lawyer and I do this for a living. Hiring an attorney does not mean you will win, but doing so actually does increase your odds. There is way too much at stake to not do everything you possibly can to improve your chances of winning and hiring an attorney is the single best way to do that.