You’ve made the decision to call an disability attorney to help with your case. The initial disability consultation is part first date, part interview, but, that should be mutual. So, what should you expect when reaching out to a law firm for the first time?
First of all – this advice is limited to Social Security disability and SSI cases. Other kinds of cases, even at the same law firm might have different processes.
When you call, if the law firm is larger than a solo practitioner but smaller than an enormous call center, you will probably have your call directed to a paralegal or intake coordinator to help you with your disability consultation.
Why won’t I speak with the lawyer immediately?
You probably won’t speak with the attorney right away, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t speak to the attorney, or that they won’t have input on your case.
Unlike some other types of law – Social Security lawyers can only charge a fee if they win your case. While they could charge a fee for a personal consultation, most try very hard not to, and stick to only charging a fee when they’ve accepted a case and are able to obtain benefits.
This means the attorney can’t get paid for their time speaking with you, and a lot of the information that they need to understand the case is basic. While the attorney wants to evaluate your case and help figure out if a. You’re a good fit for their firm and b. They’re a good fit for your needs, they don’t want to take time away from lawyering to make sure they’ve taken a good mailing address.
What kinds of questions are asked?
The intake coordinator will ask you the following:
- Your contact information (name, birthdate, address, email, phone, other family members in the household);
- Any prior information about your claim: have you applied, have you been denied, did you have a claim in the past?
- Your work history: What kind of work were you performing in the 10-15 years before you became unable to work – are your disabilities related to work, did you reduce your hours or make changes before stopping?
- Your financial health: In some cases (SSI specifically) your resources, including those of your spouse are important, and so whether you qualify
- Your medical conditions: What’s keeping you from working? We want to know, not only about the “main issues” but also any other conditions that might contribute to, or limit the kinds of work you can do.
- Support from your doctors and providers: It can be impossible to prove a claim without active treatment and support from the people providing your care. The coordinator will ask you about this history.
What kinds of questions should I ask?
That covers most of what the firm needs to know to evaluate if your claim is one they can help with – but what should you ask to find out if the firm is a good fit, and what does that mean?
First of all: “Fit” doesn’t mean a law firm is “good” or “bad.” Different lawyers and law firms will fit with different clients better than others. For example, you might want someone who talks about fighting, taking it to the government, delivering knock-out blows; or, you might want a lawyer with a sense of humor, or who has had personal experience with disability. All might be great at winning cases, but each might not be a good fit for you.
Great questions to ask the coordinator or attorney:
- Fees: Most attorneys charge the same fees in Social Security claims, but you may want to confirm this before getting too far into the process. The standard fees as set by the government are:
- The lesser of 25% of past-due benefits of $7,200 (an amount the Commissioner may raise from time to time);
- Attorneys are permitted to file a fee petition for the value of their work if there are no past-due benefits, which they should provide to you and which must be approved by Social Security. This is important since without this alternative, you couldn’t get help filing an initial claim since there is no retroactive benefit for the first 5 months.
- If the claim goes past the initial Administrative Law Judge hearing, that means an appeal to the Appeals Council or Federal Court has to be filed, the attorney is allowed to charge based on a second tier. Attorneys can either charge based on their time, or can request a fee of 25% but without the limitation of the fee cap (our firm does the latter as we believe 25% is fair and proportional to the additional work).
- Costs: Costs are not regulated by Social Security and so every attorney has a different method of dealing with costs. Some attorneys may run up cost bills for anything they think needed for your claim. Other attorneys have cost agreements limiting how much they will spend on your behalf to make sure you are not hit with a surprise bill at the end of your case. You should ask: What steps does your firm take to keep costs down?
- Process: How does the firm work? Who works on cases, and who will your contacts be at each stage. A lot of larger law firms may switch contacts often, with different people answering the phone each time you call. You might not have the same point of contact throughout your entire case, but you should look for a firm that has a clear understanding of exactly who is responsible for your case at each step, and who you can rely on to call and to provide you with information.
- Experience: While asking for a “win percentage” is a bad stat that the attorney can control, asking about familiarity with your issues and type of case can be very helpful. Has the firm won cases with similar issues? What problems come up?
- Communication: How does the firm keep you informed about your case. There are always going to be periods where not much is happening and not much can be done. That’s the nature of filing a claim with a government agency. Can the firm accept and send text messages? Can they keep you informed by email? You generally want to look for a firm with a solid electronic messaging policy. Mail is slow and will delay your claim, and communicating electronically helps you maintain copies of what’s going on.
How long is an initial consultation?
Usually an initial consult will take about 20-30 minutes. It might be longer if there are questions that need clarification, and sometimes the disability lawyer might need you to obtain prior decisions, information on your eligibility for benefits based on your work history, or other documentation. In most cases, an experienced Social Security law firm can evaluate and make a decision on whether they can help you get back on your feet during that initial consultation. Having that experience in your corner is well-worth the time to discuss your case.
Rich Frankel is the managing partner of Bross & Frankel. He is a member of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania bars. He has focused exclusively on disability and social security benefits since 2005.
Mr. Frankel joined what is now Bross & Frankel after having watched his father struggle with disability, fighting a lengthy illness. Mr. Frankel founded the firm’s veteran’s law practice and substantially grew the social security disability practice, focusing Bross & Frankel’s ability to fight for all of the disability benefits available to his clients.
Mr. Frankel additionally fights for clients in court, obtaining frequent victories in Social Security appeals and against insurance companies in Federal court.