If you’re researching this issue you’ve probably read any number of opinions on whether you should hire a lawyer from the beginning of your case or wait until you’re denied. Most of these opinions are probably from other attorneys who would very much like the answer to be “yes.” In reality though, the answer as to whether you need an attorney before you file your application really “depends.” We posted a similar answer in 2012, but some important factors have changed since then; namely, the increased number of denials, even in very strong cases. Check out both articles for a complete picture.
For some people, the answer may be “no,” you do not need an attorney. Applying for Social Security for certain impairments with debilitating limitations should be a “no brainer.” Social Security maintains a list of conditions that are so dire, they should “obviously” result in a disability. A list of these conditions is maintained here. If you have one of these conditions, you might not need an attorney unless you are too ill to file on your own and don’t have someone to help you. However, even in the strongest of these cases, Social Security has been under pressure to deny more cases, and, at the same time, to move cases along more quickly, resulting in cases being decided before all of the medical evidence has been presented. So, even if you have a listed impairment, and satisfy all of the criteria of that impairment, we always recommend taking advantage of a free consultation with an experienced attorney to determine whether your case will be as “cut and dry” as it should be.
For everyone else it’s a tougher question that varies on a case-by-case basis. The statistics will tell you that it may be in your best interest to hire an attorney early on. The majority of applications are denied initially and on “reconsideration,” all the way up to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ hearing). In fact, for 2013, less than 35% of all initial applications were approved. At Reconsideration that number drops to a jaw-dropping 7.5% (a number which has steadily dropped each year since 1999)! However, here’s where things get interesting, at the hearing level, the approval rate is about 56%. This is another number that’s steadily dropped, and I’m sure once we can look at the 2015 numbers we’ll see approvals lower across the board, but that’s a question for another article. By the way, these numbers are all publicly available here.
So why are these statistics important in deciding whether you hire an attorney? Attorneys often aren’t called until the hearing stage, after someone has already been denied initially and on reconsideration. The impact is noticeable, but it’s not as easy as “hire an attorney, win my case.” When you call an attorney with experience in Social Security, you’re going to get an evaluation of your case. There are a few parts to this for attorneys who offer free consultations. First, it’s your opportunity to talk to the attorney and decide if his or her firm is a good fit for your needs (something I’ll cover another time). Second, it’s a chance for the attorney to decide if he or she can help you with your case. The third part of this is the attorney should evaluate the merits of your case and assess any problems you may have in pursuing your claim for benefits.
You almost certainly will have at least one issue that may need to be addressed before you have a chance at obtaining disability benefits. If you don’t, you probably fall into that first category of “no brainers,” and unless you’re simply too overwhelmed or ill to file on your own, you may get some helpful advice and sent on your way. Otherwise, if there are problems that need to be addressed, whether it’s a potentially uncooperative doctor, a gap in treatment, the receipt of unemployment benefits, attempts to return to work, or something else entirely, hiring an attorney early may give you an edge in getting these issues taken care of before they turn you into the growing majority of disabled workers denied Social Security benefits or SSI.
Do you need an attorney to file for disability? Maybe. But you should definitely take advantage of our free consultation to find out.