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Do I Need a Lawyer to File Disability Claim?

Female Disability Lawyer Reading a Red Book

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No, you do not necessarily need a Social Security Disability lawyer to file your disability claim.  If you can spend time learning Social Security disability laws and regulations associated with the disability process, you can successfully navigate the disability process yourself. 

If you are detail oriented, patient and have a lot of time, you might be better off applying for disability without a lawyer. 

The SSA disability rules and regulations are available online along with some online SSI & SSDI forums.  The Social Security Administration has put a lot of information about it’s processes and procedures on line as well.  Many people can and do go through this process without the help of a lawyer.  

Hiring a Disability Lawyer FAQs

All of that being said, if it were me applying, I would hire a lawyer and I do this for a living.  In my humble opinion, there is too much at stake to go it alone.  A small mistake here or there could delay the decision by months at best or ruin your entire claim at worst. 

A typical claimant is too emotionally and financially invested in this process to think objectively and rationally about their claim.  Statistics prove that having a professional on your side helps. 

The GAO conducted a study in 2015 about whether or not having a representative improved a claimant’s odds of winning.  The GAO discovered that having a representative does increase the odds of winning by a factor of 3.  Said another way, represented clients won three times more often than non-repped clients. 

If winning your claim is important, you should get a lawyer.  

What Does a Disability Lawyer Do?

At the onset, a disability lawyer should evaluate your claim to determine whether or not you could qualify for Social Security Disability.  If you do qualify and if you elect to hire that lawyer, the lawyer should help you fill out your initial application.  

Once you have an active claim with the Social Security Administration, a disability lawyer should help you complete the seemingly endless stream of questionnaires. 

They will help answer any questions you may have about the process.  That lawyer will keep you updated on the status of your case and work with your disability examiner to make sure your file is completed in a timely manner. 

This often requires following up on medical record requests and keeping the examiner updated with your ongoing medical treatment.  That lawyer should also give advice about actions you should take to improve your chances of winning the claim.  If needed, your lawyer will also make sure appeals are sent in on time.

At the hearing level, generally speaking, a disability lawyer assists in making the hearing process as smooth as possible.  At times, they are the go-between with the Social Security Administration and Office of Hearings Operations. 

They request updated medical records and summarize them into a brief for the judge once a hearing has been scheduled. 

At your hearing, your disability attorney will be an advocate for you and your claim.  A disability lawyer will help to ensure that the judge has everything he or she needs to make an informed decision about your claim and your lawyer should follow up on the claim until a decision has been received. 

How Long Does a Disability Appeal Take?

At the Social Security Administration, there are four levels in the process of obtaining disability benefits.  They are; the initial application, reconsideration, the hearing level and finally an appeal to the Appeals Council.  At the first two stages, the initial claim or the appeal making a request for reconsideration, the process can take 2-9 months per stage.  On average, a claim at the hearing level is around 10 months, but it varies by state.  

If you know where you’re hearing is going to be held, you can look here to see a more specific average wait time. 

Once a hearing has taken place, it takes about 60 days before the decision is mailed out to the claimant and the representative if there is one.  An appeal to the Appeals Council can take anywhere between two months to a year.  

Will Hiring a Lawyer Speed up the SSDI Application Process?

In my experience, it usually does, but admittedly, I have no objective evidence to support that statement.  In my practice, we know what disability examiners are seeking and we do our best to give it to them before they ask for it.  We help clients fill out forms properly the first time. 

Both of these actions can cut down the back and forth that likely goes on when a claimant is un-repped and not experienced in what an examiner is likely looking for.  The federal government moves slow so every back and forth can take weeks.

At the hearing level, we gather medical records and prepare your file in anticipation of the disability hearing.  This almost always results in only requiring one hearing and not having the record left open for an extended period of time after the hearing in order to complete a claimant’s medical file.  Again, this can cut down the wait time.  

Large firms that only do disability should have multiple attorneys that practice in this field.  This enables those firms to take the first available hearing date.  If you hire a sole practitioner your hearing date might need to be pushed back to a time that works with your specific attorney’s calendar.  Finding a time that suits an individual attorney’s schedule can also delay the process.  

All that being said, there is no special ‘fast track’ you will be placed on just because you hire one lawyer over another or go it alone.  Any lawyer that says they can get you a hearing faster is lying. 

Aside from doing things right the first time and being available for the first available hearing time slot, there is not much else a lawyer can do to speed up the process.

How Much Does a Disability Lawyer Cost?

Congress has created a universal fee structure for disability lawyers.  Almost all Disability Lawyers charge 25% of your past due benefits, an amount not to exceed $6,000.  Average fees are much less than this though. Fees for a favorable decision at the initial level average around $1,800.  Average fees are about $2,250 for a favorable decision at the reconsideration level and on average about $4,500 if your claim needs to be brought to hearing.  

You only pay if you win.  The amount you owe will be taken directly out of your past due benefits.  Your lawyer is not allowed to take a portion of your ongoing or future benefits so the monthly amount you receive is not going to be reduced.  

This fee structure is significantly less than what lawyers typically charge for fees due only if you win.  Usually that type of fee structure is based on 33% of an award without a cap on the total fees. 

How to Fire Your Disability Lawyer.

You can fire your disability lawyer at any time; however, the process is much smoother if you start and finish your claim with the same lawyer.  That being said, if you find yourself in a nightmarish situation where your lawyer is not giving your claim the due diligence it requires, firing your lawyer is the action you should take.  

In order to fire your disability lawyer, you should send a letter directly to the lawyer and a letter to the Social Security Administration indicating your desire that your lawyer no longer represent you.  In the letter you should also request that your lawyer send a letter of withdrawal to the Social Security Administration. 

A few weeks after sending those letters you should call the Social Security Administration to ensure that your old lawyer was taken off of you claim.    

If you take the action of firing your disability lawyer, you should be aware that you may still be liable for expenses that your lawyer has incurred up to that point in your claim. 

In addition to that, your former lawyer might petition the Social Security Administration for a portion of your past due benefits if you are ultimately successful in your claim.  Most disability lawyers will not pursue these actions if they are informed of the termination early on in the process. 

The further along you are in the process, the more time, money and effort your former lawyer has in the claim and the more likely they are to petition the Administration for a share of the ultimate fee.  That fee will never exceed the statutory limits of 25% of your past due benefits not to exceed $6,000.    

One thing you should not do is hire multiple lawyers.  Having more than one lawyer on your claim at the same time creates a very complicated situation for the attorney you actually want on the file when it is time for that individual to be paid.  You will have created quite a mess that can hold up your back pay as well as your attorney’s fee.  


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January 10, 2022

Written by TC Newlin

TC is a disability litigator and one of the managing partners in the Social Security Disability Department at Fleschner, Stark, Tanoos & Newlin. He has had the pleasure of helping thousands of people obtain the benefits they so desperately need.


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