Hiring a disability attorney to handle your case can greatly improve your chances of success, but it's important to make sure the person you hire is experienced, knowledgeable, and willing to go the extra step for you. Most attorneys will schedule you for a free consultation to explain the disability process and to interview you about your medical problems and work history. But remember: the attorney should not be the only one asking the questions. You should also be interviewing the attorney. Keep in mind that disability lawyers need clients just as much as clients need lawyers.
Whether you've found an attorney through a television commercial, a referral from a friend, or Nolo's Lawyer Directory, there are a number of questions you should ask before agreeing to let an attorney represent you. Here are some of the most important.
- Where is your office located? If you hire an attorney from an out-of-state disability firm, you likely won't meet your him or her face-to-face until the day of your hearing. While many of these firms still provide quality representation, claimants who are uncomfortable with this set-up should look for attorneys closer to home.
- Are you a licensed attorney? Although Social Security allows non-attorney advocates to represent claimants in disability hearings, there are many benefits to insisting that your representative is a licensed attorney. In particular, lawyers are more likely to be familiar with relevant Social Security regulations and case law, and unlike non-attorneys, they often handle cases in federal court. In addition, non-attorney advocates and attorneys generally charge the same fees.
- Do you have specialized training in disability law? The field of disability law is highly specialized, and you should avoid hiring a general practitioner attorney to handle your case. Most disability attorneys are members of NOSSCR, the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives, which provides continuing education and training in disability law throughout the year.
- What is your fee? Disability attorneys generally require little or no money up-front, and instead charge 25% of their clients' disability back benefits, with a cap of $6,000. The fee may change if your case is denied at the hearing level and proceeds to the Appeals Council. Be sure that your attorney explains the fee structure both at the Appeals Council and in federal court.
- What case-related expenses will I need to reimburse, and will I be charged for them win or lose?Virtually all disability attorneys require you to reimburse them for expenses related to your case, including the cost of medical records requests, medical source statements, postage, and sometimes travel expenses. Make sure you're clear on what expenses are included, the average amount clients usually pay, and whether you'll be charged even if you lose your case.
- Will you consider drafting an on-the-record (OTR) request? In cases whether there is overwhelming evidence of disability, an attorney may draft an OTR request to ask the judge to approve you without a hearing. While this can be time-consuming and certainly isn't appropriate in all cases, your attorney should be willing to consider submitting an OTR request if he or she thinks it could be successful.
- Do you arrange consultative examinations with doctors? Like an OTR request, consultative examinations (CEs) aren't appropriate for every case. Because they typically cost hundreds of dollars, an attorney who arranges a CE for every client would go broke very quickly. Still, it's important to know that your attorney would be willing to arrange a CE under the right circumstances.
- How often will we discuss my case before the hearing? If your case has been denied at the initial level, it can take a year or more to receive a hearing in front of an administrative law judge. During this time, your attorney should contact you periodically for updates on your medical situation.
- Will we meet before the hearing? Your attorney should be willing to meet with you before your hearing rather than simply discussing your case on the phone. Unless you live in a remote area and don't have transportation, you should ask to meet face-to-face with your attorney at least once before your hearing.
- Do you handle cases in federal court? While this question may not be a deal-breaker, your attorney should at least be able to refer you to someone who practices in federal court should the need arise.
Rest assured that an experienced disability lawyer won't be offended or annoyed to answer any questions you have. On the contrary, most attorneys will be pleased that you care enough about your case to make sure you're hiring the right person.