Even though you aren’t required to hire an attorney to represent you in your disability case, statistics show that disability claimants who are represented by a lawyer are much more likely to be approved for benefits, especially at the hearing level. If you choose to get legal representation, there are some things to keep in mind to help you select the right attorney.
Professionalism and Courtesy
When you call a potential attorney, pay attention to the level of professionalism and treatment you are given by the attorney and staff. Even though disability firms are generally busy places, you should still receive timely callbacks and be given the chance to ask questions.
Don’t be put off if you can’t speak to the attorney the first time you call, or if you are asked to speak to a staff member for help with a question. This is because experienced disability attorneys spend most of their time in hearings and rely on their staff to field calls. However, a good firm should allow you to schedule a free consultation with the attorney. Keep in mind, though, that due to an attorney’s time constraints, it is not uncommon for the firm to limit the length of these consultations.
Promises of Outcomes
It is unethical, and unfair to you, for an attorney to guarantee that he or she will get you approved. A good attorney will give you an honest assessment of your case only after reviewing the facts. A good attorney will also admit that he or she probably can’t get you approved any faster than you could on your own. Here is a sample question you should ask and a sample answer a good attorney should give you:
- “Will my claim be approved?” I can’t guarantee that you will win. However, I can pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses in your case and look for ways to improve your chances of approval.
- “Can you get me approved faster?” I probably can’t get you through the Social Security disability process any faster. However, my staff and I can make sure that deadlines are met and that your records are requested and submitted on time.
You should ask a potential attorney or a staff member about the firm’s approval rate. Here are some questions to ask:
- “What is your overall approval rate?”
- “What portion of your approvals are at the hearings level?”
- “What percentage of your wins are for full benefits?”
- “What percentage of your wins are for partial benefits?”
A good firm should be willing, and able, to share their statistics.
Office and Case Management
Even though disability firms are busy places, you should be provided with a contact person who you can rely on to answer your questions. The firm should also keep in touch with you on a regular basis. Here are some questions you should ask to get an idea of how your case will be handled:
- “What kind of support staff do you have?”
- “Will I have my own case manager?”
- “How many clients does an average case manager handle?
- “How often can I expect a call from my case manager to keep me updated on the progress of my case?”
- “Is there a paralegal in the firm?”
- “Will you request my records for me?”
- “Will you advance the cost of my medical records?” (Most firms will, but you will have to repay them, whether you win or lose, at the close of your case.)
An attorney doesn’t need to be licensed to represent claimants at disability hearings; in fact, a claimant’s representative need not be an attorney at all. However, a licensed attorney may have a better understanding of Social Security law. This is because attorneys receive special training in how to read and interpret statutes and case law. Also, your lawyer must be able to an attorney who is licensed to practice law in federal court if your claim ever gets appealed to that level.
Here are some additional questions you can ask to get an idea of the attorney’s expertise.
- “How many years have you practiced disability law?”
- "Are you licensed in the states where you practice?"
- “How many cases do you handle a year?”
- “Do you ever go through additional training?”
- “How long have you practiced in this geographical area?
This last question may seem strange. However, it is important to ask because a disability attorney who has practiced a long time in the area where you live knows the administrative law judges (ALJs) who may hear your case. ALJs are unique in how they approach decision. Some ALJs are also biased towards, or against, certain types of cases. A good attorney will know how to adjust arguments, if need be, to appeal to the ALJ assigned to hear the case.
Special Knowledge of Your Condition
Some claims may be more challenging to win because of the medical condition on which they are based. This can be especially true if a claimant suffers from mental illness along with drugs or alcohol abuse. If this is your situation, ask the attorney about his or her approach to these types of cases and the success rate for winning them.
Children’s cases are handled differently from adult cases. Not all disability firms will accept children’s cases, and those that do may not have much experience with them. If you are filing on behalf of a child, make sure that the firm you deal with has experience with childhood disability questions. You should also ask about the attorney’s approval rate for childhood disability cases.
You should ask the potential firm if it is willing to provide references or testimonials from past clients. A good firm should be open to doing this.
Finding Disability Lawyers
Nolo offers a unique directory of disability lawyers that provides a comprehensive profile for each attorney with information that will help you select the right attorney. The profiles tell you about the lawyer's disability experience, education, and fees, and perhaps most importantly, the lawyer's general philosophy of practicing law. Nolo has confirmed that every listed attorney has a valid license and is in good standing with their bar association.
You can also schedule a free consultation with a disability lawyer by entering the details of your disability claim into our short form. You will then select several local disability lawyers to contact you.
Also read Nolo's article on questions to ask before hiring a disability attorney.