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A disability lawyer provides legal services to people who are submitting Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claims or appealing denied benefits. While you can apply for SSDI on your own, getting approved is notoriously difficult. You must prove your disabilities meet the Social Security Administration (SSA) criteria to qualify for benefits, which requires gathering extensive medical documentation.
While it's not a guarantee that you’ll receive benefits, having representation can give you a leg up. Applicants who used an attorney or a nonattorney representative in hearings before a judge in the appeals process were awarded SSDI benefits 2.9 times more often than those who did not have representation, according to a 2017 study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Disability lawyers are paid on contingency, meaning they’ll only get paid if your claim is approved. The SSA also sets limits on how much these lawyers can charge in fees, and those fees are deducted from your past-due disability benefits.
What does a disability lawyer do?
Disability lawyers are familiar with navigating the application requirements. They can help with:
Evaluating if you have a case.
Reviewing medical records.
Contacting medical providers.
Requesting copies of records.
Filling out or double-checking the accuracy of your disability application.
Preparing documentation to appeal a denied application.
Representing your case if an appeal is denied.
Applying for SSDI is a time-consuming process. The SSA estimates that it takes three to five months to receive a decision after submitting your claim. But it can take much longer, especially if an application is incomplete.
“I can’t tell you how many cases that we’ve taken over that had been delayed for over a year because someone missed a piece of information on the initial application,” says Josh Syme, a disability lawyer at PRW Disability in Florida, a firm that offers legal services to those making disability claims. “You know, this process can take up to two years.”
And even when a claim seems straightforward, winning isn’t easy; among disabled worker claims from 2010-19, an average of just 21% of initial claims were approved, according to the SSA.
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A disability advocate, also known as a nonattorney representative, is an alternative to an attorney. An advocate doesn’t have a law degree but must have a college degree or equivalent experience and be certified in Social Security regulations regarding disability. Advocates are subject to the same fee caps as lawyers, though some nonprofit advocacy groups provide services free of charge.
Do I need a disability lawyer?
While there’s no guarantee that hiring a lawyer will get your application approved, it can make it more likely. Here are a few circumstances to consider:
You might need a disability lawyer if:
You don’t understand the application process. A lawyer can make sure your application is complete and contains enough supporting material.
You have questions about medical documentation requirements. If you are overwhelmed with the number of medical records you need to submit or are unsure of what documentation is required, an attorney can help.
Your initial application has been denied. A denied application isn’t the end of the road. A lawyer can help you navigate the appeals process.
You might not need a disability lawyer if:
You have a certain medical condition or terminal illness. In these cases, you can receive a Compassionate Allowance, which fast-tracks your application so you can receive disability benefits more quickly.
You have already submitted an application. If you’ve already done the legwork and are waiting for a decision, hiring a lawyer at this stage might not be necessary. Consider waiting until you are denied before committing to work with an attorney.
How to find a disability lawyer
Here are four ways to find a disability lawyer:
Ask for recommendations. A good recommendation can save you time and effort. Ask friends and family who have filed for disability if they liked their attorneys.
Search online. Looking for disability lawyers near you will bring up a list of options in your area. And databases that organize lawyers by state — like those on Nolo.com and Lawyers.com — let you compare candidates quickly.
Compare experience. Lawyers who practice the same kind of law don’t necessarily have the same experience or specializations. Look for a disability lawyer who has experience in handling cases similar to yours.
Request a free consultation. A reputable disability attorney is going to offer an initial consultation for free, says Syme. Use the appointment to ask specific questions, meet the office staff and get a feel for the attorney’s personality.
If finding a lawyer is difficult, consider reaching out to your state’s National Disability Rights Network office. The organization offers support to individuals with disabilities, including legal assistance.
What to look for in a disability lawyer
It’s important to find a disability lawyer who you can trust — and here are a few things to look for:
A current law license. Disability attorneys must be licensed to practice law in at least one state, though they can take on cases in any state, so they don’t have to be based in your state to represent you. You can check an attorney’s license with the American Bar Association.
Experience with your disability. A lawyer who is experienced with your type of illness or condition is likely to be more familiar with what is needed to make a good case.
Interest in your case. A good disability lawyer should want to know more about your case before taking it on, says Syme. They should ask questions about your work history and medical diagnoses before agreeing to work with you.
Application assistance. Because an incomplete application can delay approval, a lawyer who assists with filling out your application can be valuable.
Transparency. A lawyer should answer your questions so you can make an informed decision. Syme says to ask about their success rate, familiarity with your type of case and how long they’ve been practicing disability law.
There are a few companies that take advantage of people who are applying for SSDI. If you see any of these red flags, Syme recommends going elsewhere:
They are not accredited as an attorney or a disability advocate.
You are required to pay fees upfront.
They guarantee you that you’ll be approved for benefits.
They pressure you to sign a contract.
They won’t tell you their fee structure upfront.
How much does a disability lawyer cost?
Disability lawyers are paid on contingency, or only when a claim is approved.
A disability lawyer’s fees are paid with a portion of a client’s past-due benefits. Also known as back pay, past-due benefits are those that a person is owed for the months between the onset of a disability and the start of disability coverage.
The government limits how much disability lawyers can charge clients: They receive either up to 25% of a client’s past-due benefits or $7,200, whichever is the lower amount. The SSA deducts this amount from your past-due benefits and sends it directly to your attorney.
For example, if you were approved for $21,000 in past-due benefits, your attorney could collect up to 25% of that amount. The government would deduct $5,250 from your past-due benefits to pay the attorney, and you would receive the remaining $15,750.
However, if your past-due benefits were $38,000, your attorney would only receive up to $7,200 because 25% of your past-due benefits — $9,500 — would be higher than the fee cap. This would be deducted from your past-due benefits, leaving you with $30,800.
Your lawyer can also charge for out-of-pocket costs, such as fees for requesting copies of medical records or mileage.