If you're thinking about hiring a disability attorney to help with your Social Security case, you should first understand the costs and benefits of having a lawyer on your side. The costs are fairly straightforward: disability attorneys charge a fee regulated by federal law, which is usually the lesser of 25% of your disability backpay or $6,000. (Costs can increase if your case goes to the Appeals Council or federal court, but generally you won't pay more than $6,000.) Little or no money is required up-front, and you're only charged a fee if you win your case.
The benefits of hiring a disability lawyer are many, and worth going over in some detail. It's also important to consider at what stage of the process an attorney should get involved.
The most important reason to hire an attorney to help with your disability case is that your chances of being approved are significantly increased. While it's certainly true that some people who apply on their own are approved for benefits, statistics show that, everything else being equal, Social Security is more likely to approve an applicant who's represented by legal counsel than one who isn't.
From the initial application to the hearing level and beyond, disability attorneys understand how to present a case in the light most favorable to their clients. On the initial application, your lawyer can offer advice on your "alleged onset date" of disability, argue that your condition meets one of the listed impairments in Social Security's "blue book," and help you focus on the facts that will be most persuasive to Social Security. At the reconsideration and hearing levels (the first and second level of appeal in most states), your lawyer can collect and submit relevant medical evidence, obtain an opinion from your doctor, draft a detailed brief to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), and prepare you for the judge's questions at the hearing. Your attorney will also elicit helpful testimony from you at the hearing and may cross-examine the Vocational Expert or Medical Expert to demonstrate that you're unable to work.
At the next stages of appeal, the Appeals Council and federal court, your lawyer can craft sophisticated legal arguments to show that Social Security wrongly denied your case.
The general rule is "the earlier, the better." If you're even considering filing for disability, you should call a disability attorney for a free consultation. Your attorney can help you evaluate the strength of your case and assist you with your initial application. While some people choose to navigate this stage without legal representation, you're more likely to get approved if you have a lawyer on your side. Another thing to consider: Often a client who is approved at the initial application level only owes a small attorney's fee because there are few back benefits owed from Social Security (again, your disability lawyer will get 25% of your backpay if you win).
If using an attorney to help with your initial application is a smart idea, hiring a lawyer after you've received an initial denial should be a no-brainer. In addition to improving your chances of success, a disability attorney can sometimes move your case more quickly through the system, especially if your medical condition is terminal or your financial situation is especially dire (for example, you are homeless or your house is being foreclosed on). Moreover, your attorney can send the judge a request for an "on-the-record" (OTR) decision, which means that you could be approved for benefits without a hearing.
However, it's important to remember that a lawyer's attempts to expedite a case are often unsuccessful, and that most claimants, including those represented by legal counsel, must wait many months or even years for their case to be resolved.
Perhaps the only time you should refrain from calling a lawyer is when you have submitted your initial application to Social Security and are awaiting an answer. There is rarely much your attorney can do at this point, so there's little sense in agreeing to pay an attorney 25% of your past-due benefits until you get a denial. In virtually every other situation, the benefits of having an experienced representative on your side greatly outweigh the costs.