In the United States, any litigant can choose to represent him or herself. But that doesn’t mean you should. And you should really consider hiring an attorney to represent you if you are applying for Social Security disability benefits.
To be clear, you do not need to hire a disability attorney if you decide to apply for Social Security disability benefits, whether they are Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. You can apply on your own online, by telephone, or in person at your local Social Security office. And it is true that some disability attorneys will not take your case until your initial claim has been denied, and you want to appeal Social Security’s decision.
Given the opportunity, however, it is in your best interest to hire an attorney before you even submit your application for disability benefits. First of all, an attorney can evaluate your situation and advise you on which kind of benefits to pursue. Secondly, the application can be confusing to those who are unfamiliar with Social Security’s terminology, and you may not have the appropriate paperwork on hand to complete the application in full. An attorney can help you fill out the application and then assist you with finding the paperwork needed to satisfy Social Security’s requirements. He or she will know what medical documentation you need to prove your disability and how best to explain your limitations to improve your chances of a successful outcome.
The reality is that anywhere from 60-70% of all claimants are denied at the application stage. That’s because most of the people approved at application are either going to receive benefits because they suffer from a condition that is on Social Security’s Compassionate Allowance list (the diagnosis alone qualifies you to receive disability benefits), or their condition meets a blue book listing (specific and strict criteria Social Security sets to determine disability). If your injury or condition does not fall into either of those categories, it does not mean that you are not disabled. But it does mean that you could probably benefit from at attorney’s experience now.
Many people do not hire an attorney until they have received their denial letter. You only have sixty days from the date on the denial letter to appeal your claim, and time is of the essence, both in getting updated medical records to Social Security and in coming up with a theory of your case to present to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) when you have your hearing.
The hearing stage is the stage at which most applicants are successful in obtaining disability benefits. Although the format of the hearing and the process involved is far different from standard courtroom procedure, the hearing can still be a very stressful experience. And since the hearing is usually your final chance to make a compelling case for your inability to work due to injury or illness, you don’t want to take any chances that Social Security will deny you. If you are again denied benefits and cannot find an attorney willing to take a second appeal to the Appeals Council, you will have to start all over again at the application stage if you wish to continue to pursue disability benefits.
Statistically speaking, your chances of receiving a favorable decision increase substantially if you hire an attorney at the hearing stage. A study by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows that people who hire attorneys to help them with their disability claims are three times more likely to receive a favorable decision. He or she will review your denial letter and find out exactly why Social Security denied you disability benefits; going forward, those gaps or inconsistencies can be addressed to remove all doubt that you are disabled and unable to work.
An attorney can also do a great deal to help you prepare for your hearing. He or she will contact all of your doctors and all medical professionals who are treating you for your disability and obtain the most updated medical records to send to Social Security. He or she will also ask for trusted medical opinions to prove that you are disabled. Your attorney will then craft a sophisticated legal argument to present to the ALJ.
Your attorney will also be far more familiar with the rules and regulations governing Social Security disability law as well as the deadlines that need to be met. He or she can prepare you for the kinds of questions that the ALJ will ask you at your hearing and practice your answers with you. Your attorney will know what needs to be brought out in your testimony and the kinds of things that the ALJ will be looking for to appropriately determine your disability status. If there are any vocational experts present at the hearing to disprove your assertion that you are disabled, your attorney will be able to cross-examine them and demonstrate that you are unable to work.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Hiring a disability attorney seems like great idea, but how could I ever afford one?” The good news is, you probably can. Disability attorneys only work on contingency, which means that they do not get paid unless and until you receive a favorable decision and begin collecting benefits.
If Social Security approves you, the amount your attorney can receive in attorneys’ fees is capped at not more than $6,000.00 or 25% of your backpay benefits. (Backpay benefits are the amount you are entitled to from the time you became disabled until the time you started receiving disability benefits.) Social Security automatically deducts attorneys’ fees from your award and sends it your attorney directly, so you never have to worry about making sure he or she gets paid or how much you have to pay him or her.