Why It's Smart to Have a Lawyer at a Disability Hearing

Having an attorney at your Social Security disability hearing can significantly increase your odds of winning benefits.

By , Attorney Seattle University School of Law
Updated 7/10/2024

Getting Social Security disability benefits (SSDI or SSI) can be a complex process, especially if you're scheduled to attend a disability hearing. Although the hearing process is informal—meaning the agency has relaxed rules of evidence—you'll greatly increase your chances of success if you have an attorney who's familiar with Social Security disability law.

Your disability lawyer will be able to gather your medical evidence, prepare you for testimony, and write a brief for the administrative law judge (ALJ) who will decide your case. During your hearing, your attorney will play an important role in questioning key witnesses who help the ALJ determine whether you're disabled. Because few disability claimants (applicants) have the experience necessary to ask the right questions, most people should have a disability attorney present at the hearing.

Disability Lawyers Know How to Question Expert Witnesses

An expert witness is likely to be present at your hearing. Vocational experts are common, but occasionally a medical expert (doctor or other health care professional) will be present as well. It's important to ask the right questions of these experts to elicit testimony that will be favorable to your claim.

Questioning the Vocational Expert

Social Secuirty judges often rely on vocational expert testimony to decide whether you can perform your past work and whether there are any jobs you can do despite your disability. Your disability case will probably hinge on the judge deciding whether you're capable of performing any jobs.

You can expect the judge to ask several "hypothetical questions" of the vocational expert to help the ALJ determine what kind of work you might be able to perform. Your disability lawyer will also be able to ask questions and challenge some unspoken assumptions the ALJ may have made. Disability attorneys can be particularly helpful at reducing the number of jobs the vocational expert cites as examples of jobs you can do, by bringing up your functional limitations or lack of transferable job skills.

Insufficient or inadequate vocational expert testimony can also be a reason for the Appeals Council to remand a claim, so even if the ALJ issues an unfavorable decision, your attorney will know how to craft a successful appeal for the Appeals Council.

Questioning a Medical Expert

Judges sometimes ask medical experts to provide opinions about how severe your impairments are and whether they meet the requirements of a disability listing. Medical experts are typically doctors who specialize in the area of medicine related to your particular condition. (If you have a medical expert present who's testifying outside their area of expertise, your lawyer can—and should—object.)

Medical expert testimony can be crucial to your disability claim. For example, if you're applying for disability due to back pain, the ALJ may ask the medical expert whether they think you meet listing 1.15 for spinal disorders, which requires that you be unable to walk independently or use both arms independently to do work-related tasks. If the medical expert testifies that you're able to walk or move your arms without assistance or help, your attorney has the right to conduct a cross-examination.

Using legal training and experience, your lawyer may cross-examine the medical expert by bringing up specific evidence (such as an MRI showing significant spinal stenosis, in the above example) and asking whether the evidence is consistent with their testimony. Your attorney can also ask the expert if they disagree with other medical opinions present in your record and, if so, to explain the disagreement.

Additionally, your lawyer can question the medical expert's qualifications, if necessary, or determine whether the expert has correctly interpreted the listing requirements. Even when no medical expert is present at your hearing, if having one testify would help your case, your lawyer can present an argument to the ALJ as to why the hearing should be postponed in order to obtain testimony from a medical expert.

Disability Attorneys Can Help Obtain Medical Opinions From Your Doctors

Social Security values the opinions of doctors whom you've regularly seen for your impairments. Because these doctors have treated you consistently over time, they can often provide special insight into your limitations and prognosis. Therefore, many lawyers spend considerable effort obtaining helpful medical source statements from your doctors and submitting them to Social Security.

Your disability lawyer might be able to help a doctor write a letter that's very persuasive to Social Security on the issue of your disability. Or your lawyer might prepare a written questionnaire for your doctors to fill out that provides them a way to present a detailed medical opinion that meets the agency's rules. Many disability applicants think it's enough to have their doctor write a note saying that they're disabled, but Social Security disregards these opinions. Your attorney can help your doctor understand the legal requirements for disability benefits.

SSDI Lawyers Are Often Familiar With the Judge Conducting Your Hearing

Because the Social Security Administration has hearing offices nationwide, disability attorneys often find themselves regularly appearing in front of ALJs local to their practice. Your lawyer may have some "inside information" about how your judge holds hearings and what kinds of questions they tend to ask.

For example, your case might be assigned to an ALJ who asks tough questions of disability applicants who've had a history of drug and alcohol abuse. If you've struggled (or continue to struggle) with substance use, your lawyer can better prepare you to answer these questions within the proper context. Or you might have an ALJ who's more easygoing about dependency issues, but scrutinizes any unemployment benefits that you collected after your alleged disability onset date. Your attorney can tailor your testimony to address each judge's quirks.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Apply for Disability Benefits?

You don't need an attorney to file an application for SSDI (or appeal a denial), but if you've been denied after reconsideration, you should get one sooner rather than later—preferably well before your disability hearing.

If you're still on the fence about hiring a Social Security disability attorney, keep in mind that disability lawyers are paid on a contingency basis, meaning they're only paid if you win your case. Most attorneys offer free consultations, where you can ask them questions to find out if they're a good match for you.

Once you're ready to apply for SSDI or SSI—with or without an attorney—you can learn more about how to submit your application in our article on filing for disability benefits.

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