Important: We updated this article in November 2022 with current approval rates, claim-processing times and the new attorney fee cap effective 11/30/2022. Many Social Security disability applicants with legal representation have better luck getting approved for benefits. A “legal representative” is either a Social Security attorney (i.e., lawyer) or a disability advocate (not a lawyer). Advocates and attorneys have the same training and expertise around handling SSD benefits claims. Despite their similarities, one type of representation may have unique aspects that better fit your specific needs.
What A Social Security Attorney Can Do For You
A Social Security attorney (or lawyer) has years of specialized education and a law degree. That’s the primary difference between a disability advocate and Social Security attorney. Claimants with hard-to-prove medical conditions or appealing a denied claim may do better with a Social Security attorney.
How Legal Assistance Helps Improve Your Chances for Getting Approved
Advocates and attorneys know the ins and outs of applying for Social Security disability benefits. Both can work to get your application approved faster and maximize your potential payments. Here are just a few perks you’ll get from legal assistance that you won’t when filing on your own:
1. Nearly Triple Your Benefit Approval Chances & Potentially Get Your First Payment Faster
A little more than 17% of people have a Social Security attorney file their initial claim. But here are the benefits you’ll get from having a lawyer handle everything from the outset:
- A recent study shows you’re 2.9x more likely to get benefits within 6 months if a lawyer files your paperwork
- 58% of claimants with lawyers get benefits on their very first try vs. 20% who file without legal assistance
- That same report shows people with lawyers filing mental illness claims are 70% more likely to get benefits than those without
- Average time to get SSD benefits with a lawyer is 152 days, vs. 400+ days for those who apply on their own WITHOUT legal assistance
In addition to their vast legal knowledge and experience, a Social Security attorney holds more authority in the court. For instance, if a federal judge hears your appeal, a Social Security attorney can represent your case. However, disability advocates cannot appear in court at this stage.
SSA data shows that 4 in 5 people have lawyers representing their claims at the appeals stage. While just 20% get approved on their first try, about 35% eventually win SSD benefits on appeal. A Social Security attorney or advocate knows how to get you paid the maximum benefits amount you’re owed faster. In some cases, that means cutting down your wait time to get an appeals hearing scheduled. For others, it’s getting a year’s worth of past-due benefit payments deposited in a single check. Since they don’t charge anything up front, what have you got to lose?
2. Ensure Your SSD Application’s Error-Free
The most recent SSA Annual Report shows just 1 in 5 first-time SSD claimants get approved for benefits. But another 2 in 5 get “technical denials” for making mistakes while filling out their forms! Bad handwriting, leaving a required field blank or writing in the margins will result in your claim’s “technical denial.” And remember: It takes 3-5 months to review each SSD application, on average. So if you make one simple mistake on your claim forms, you’ll have to file an appeal. Even if you’re eligible and approved on appeal, can you afford to wait 250+ days for your first payment?
3. Pull Your Most Convincing, Current Medical Records
Any experienced Social Security disability attorney or advocate will review your medical records to ensure they are current and thorough. Without this information, the SSA may schedule a medical examination for you with one of their DDS physicians. If this happens, it’ll make your claim review take much longer. Pulling your complete medical records isn’t free; you’ll have to pay your doctor for those. If you cannot afford these fees, your Social Security attorney can pay them for you. And representatives know exactly which records are most convincing to the SSA as well as court judges. They won’t waste time or money submitting records unless they serve as convincing evidence that helps prove your case.
4. Give You Witness Testimony Advice & Guidance
Both Social Security disability applicants and the SSA can present witnesses in court. But sometimes, it’s a bad idea and can actually hurt your case. A Social Security attorney can advise whether you should testify on your own behalf (or your spouse, for example). Since you’re not a lawyer, it’s easy to think a witness might help your case when the opposite is true.
5. Coach You to Answer Questions Correctly During Your Appeals Hearing
You must answer several questions at your appeals hearing, and it’s essential that you give honest answers. A Social Security attorney or advocate can tell you which answers are best for helping prove your case. Even better, they can help you practice and prepare for court so you feel confident answering each question.
6. Cross-Examine Any SSA Vocational Experts At Your Hearing
The American Bar Association says the government usually brings a vocational expert to your appeals hearing. The SSA’s lawyer does this to show other jobs you might still qualify for that meet your condition’s current limitations. A Social Security attorney or disability advocate can pick this vocational evidence apart through cross-examination. If you don’t have an attorney or advocate representing you in court, you must handle this step by yourself.
Some Advantages You’ll Only Get With a Social Security Attorney
- Lawyers may get your benefits approved or your appeals hearing scheduled faster.
- No attorney will accept your case unless they think you qualify for SSD benefits.
- If you can’t afford them, lawyers can purchase copies of your full medical records to support your case.
- Your lawyer can appear in court on your behalf if health or transportation issues stop you from going. They can also schedule video hearings that happen at their office or from your home and coach you on how to answer the judge.
- Free initial consultation, including confidential legal advice that applies to your specific situation with no obligation to hire that attorney or move forward with your claim.
- If the SSA denied your claim, a Social Security attorney can find and correct any paperwork errors as well as file your appeal.
- You’ll pay nothing unless your claim’s approved; then, you’ll pay a small, one-time fee deducted from your lump-sum backpay.
What A Social Security Disability Advocate Can Do
Many people assume disability advocates aren’t as qualified as lawyers. However, that’s simply not true. For first-time Social Security disability applicants, non-attorney advocates have nearly the same authority as lawyers do. The only time a disability advocate cannot help you is if your appealed case goes to federal court. In that scenario, you need an accredited Social Security attorney to represent your case. Since disability advocates don’t have law licenses, they cannot perform certain legal tasks required in the federal court system.
However, the Social Security Administration (SSA) requires all non-attorney advocates to meet specific qualifications that the agency regulates. Disability advocates must pass these strict requirements:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree (or high school diploma plus training and work experience equivalent to a college education)
- Pass a criminal background check
- Maintain liability insurance (must provide proof if requested)
- Pass a written certification exam
- Complete continuing education requirements to stay up-to-date on current SSA rules, laws, programs and processes
You cannot become a disability advocate without proper education and four years of training. If you seek help from an advocate, be sure to ask questions about this person’s job experience and background. Only sign the fee agreement when you’re confident this advocate is the right person to help file your claim!
Disability advocates charge the same amount as any Social Security attorney. Federal law limits that to 25% of your back pay or $7,200 (whichever amount is less). So, choosing a disability advocate over a Social Security attorney will not save you any money. It only limits how much professional help you’ll get when appealing a denied claim.
What To Expect At Your Consultation With A Social Security Attorney Or Advocate
While there are clear advantages to legal assistance, meeting with an attorney or advocate might make you feel nervous. Many people think they’ll charge a ridiculous fee for a consultation or wait hours to fill out endless documents. Representatives can tell after just a few questions whether you’re likely eligible for SSD benefits (or not). Be clear and honest at your initial meeting, ask about next steps and how the process typically works. The more information you have, the better you’ll feel about trusting this legal representative to handle your SSD claim.
And remember: Whether you choose a Social Security attorney or non-lawyer advocate, it costs the same amount. They won’t get paid unless the SSA awards you disability benefits. If your case does win, their fee comes directly from your back-pay award. In fact, the SSA has to review and approve the fee amount before your lawyer or advocate receives payment. And your advocate or Social Security lawyer must show you this fee and get your signature on that amount first. That means your representative cannot “surprise” you with a fee you didn’t know about, or charge more than you agreed. The SSA reviews any fees you agreed to pay to ensure the amount is legal and reasonable. This protects you from financial exploitation when seeking professional claim help.
Find A Qualified Social Security Attorney or Advocate Near You
We can easily match you with an experienced Social Security attorney or advocate through DisabilityApprovalGuide.com. To find one near you, just click the button below. Once we have your current information, we’ll match you with a qualified legal representative in your area. This representative can give you personalized support for your specific claim needs and answer any questions you may have.
Ready to see if you may qualify for a free, no-obligation consultation with a Social Security attorney? Click the button below to start your online disability benefits evaluation now: