Do I Need an Attorney to Apply for and Get Social Security Disability?
The quick answer is no. There is no law that says you must have an attorney at any stage of the process. I have people who come up to me all the time and say, “My sister-in law” applied and got it on her own the first time. I tell them that is great and that is how it should be. Approximately one-third of applicants are approved at one of the first two administrative levels of review and do not have to go before an administrative law judge. I also have people come up to me all the time and say, “I didn’t know this was so complicated” or “I didn’t even know people get attorneys for this.” Sometimes there is the mistaken notion that applying for disability is just like any other social service program. So, if someone is used to filling out forms over the years for a relative or friend for various government programs, they think disability is the same. I tell people that every single form you fill out during the process is not a form – it’s a legal brief disguised as a form. Sometimes well-meaning employees at the Social Security office will say to people, “You Don’t Need an Attorney.” Many of them are very knowledgeable and committed to their work but they are not qualified to make this decision for someone.
At the end of the day though, as with any consumer purchase, it’s about value whether perceived or real. The decision is up to the consumer.
Some things to know about the Social Security Administration and private attorneys, When the modern area of the program began in the 1970s I think few imagined attorneys being involved. However, the law surrounding the process grew more and more complex that people wanted attorneys. For regular disability cases for individuals who end up going in front of an administrative law judge, about 80 percent have attorneys and about 60% for SSI. So, a system was created where attorneys could get paid only if they won the case and only if there was backpay for the client. This rate is 25% of the backpay or 6,000 whichever is less. This is more or less the basic foundation of the system today.
This may sound like a lot to some, but it really isn’t in terms of the price of law school and the various costs related to operating a practice. As a result some attorney won’t accept SSI cases since the backpay is usually not that large, or mental health cases which are generally more difficult and take a lot more time, or they won’t accept cases from the beginning because if they win the amount won would be too small. This is not greed it’s just basic cost and mission effectiveness and making a living.
So many people can’t even find an attorney to take their cases. Of course, another reason could be that they don’t have a case with which to begin. I am a little more open in which cases I will take on but I still only take on 3-4 cases out of every ten people that call me. Some cases I can’t take because I’m contacted just a few months before the hearing and there is no way I can adequately prepare. Sometimes when they represented themselves, I find out that they made some mistakes or errors, that seemed harmless to them at the time, but really damaged their case beyond my repair.
So, what value can an attorney bring to the process? (1) A better and clearer understanding of what is happening at each step of the process and understandable advice on why you are bring told to do or not do certain things or other actions taken (2) Putting together an actual strategy based on the law, the facts and the real world workings of SS (3) Total honesty about the true strengths and weakness of a case (4) Limited interaction with SS Employees (5) Less stress, confusion and hassle about the entire process (6) All forms filled out or filled out with assistance (7) Telling you what facts and information is and is not important to your case and (8) of course if needed court representation. The most important reason you may want an attorney is to most maximize your chances of winning your case and hopefully winning it sooner rather than later.