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Disability Lawyers: Everything You Should Know About Working With An Attorney

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
July 14, 2022  ·  8 min read
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Atticus offers free, high-quality disability advice for Americans who can't work. Our team of Stanford and Harvard trained lawyers has a combined 15+ years of legal experience, and have helped over 10,000 Americans apply for disability benefits.

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At Atticus, we’ve helped thousands of people win disability benefits. And we’ve learned a few core truths: 

We’ve outlined everything you should know about selecting and working with a lawyer for your SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) or SSI (Supplemental Security Income) claim. We’ll cover what a lawyer does, how much their services cost, and how they improve your chances of winning benefits.

First things first: Do I need a lawyer?

Your odds of winning disability benefits increase threefold with a lawyer. They can help you navigate every stage of the application, appeal, and hearing process. They’ll be able to effectively evaluate whether or not you’ll qualify for benefits (and which disability program you best qualify for). And they’ll know how to best prove to the government, or a judge, that you’re medically unable to work.

For most people the question is less “do I need a disability lawyer” and “when do I need a lawyer.” 

If you haven’t filled out your application yet, you don’t need a lawyer, but they can help. 

Filling out your application can be tricky, and your lawyer can either fill out, or walk you through, the process. They’ll give critical advice on how to most favorably answer the questions. They’ll collect the right medical records, and make sure any follow-up paperwork is submitted on time. 

Applying for disability benefits — communicating with the SSA, gathering paperwork, and filling out the application the right way — can feel like a full-time job. There’s no disadvantage to bringing in a lawyer early, and letting them do the heavy-lifting. 

If you have filled out your application, and it was rejected, you almost definitely need a lawyer.

Your case will likely go to a hearing, at which point a lawyer will be critical to a favorable decision. Lawyers cross-examine vocational experts, prep you for a judge’s questions, and develop a strategy for winning your case. 

An exception...

If you have a “listing level condition” you likely don’t need an attorney. There are a few conditions that automatically qualify for disability benefits — like terminal cancer, being on dialysis, and ALS. In these rare cases, your application will almost always get approved without a hearing, and a lawyer is likely unnecessary. But for most applicants, trying to win without a lawyer, puts you at a severe disadvantage. 

What does a lawyer do for me?

At every stage of the process, your lawyer should be working with and for you

Before you apply

Your lawyer will get to know you. They’ll review your case, set expectations, and give you their honest assessment of your chances of winning. They can also give you advice on what you can do to improve those chances (for example, working less, or seeing a specialist more regularly). 

As you apply

Most disability lawyers will fill out the disability application for you — making sure you cover all of the important bases and avoid making claim-denying mistakes. Disability lawyers also know what evidence is critical for your application and how to get it quickly from your medical team. 

Follow up if you’re rejected

The SSA denies a majority of applicants. You’ll have to, at this point, file for reconsideration — which your lawyer will take care of. About 91% of reconsiderations are also rejected — at which point your case will go to a hearing.

Represent you at a hearing

Your lawyer will prepare you for the judges questions and will cross-examine witnesses from the state. They’ll have a strategy for proving your application was denied incorrectly, and will offer legal evidence to support your eligibility. 

We wrote more about what you can expect from your lawyer throughout the entire process — and what your lawyer does at a disability hearing.

But in brief: having a lawyer in your corner at the hearing phase can make or break your case (in fact, 83% of people have some legal representation by the time their application moves to a hearing).

Here’s why: At a hearing, vocational experts — hired by the state — will testify about what jobs someone with your condition (and background) should be able to do. Cross-examining them effectively is paramount to a favorable outcome — and knowing enough about the law to effectively cross-examine them would be near impossible for someone without a legal background. 

Doing so requires extensive knowledge of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (a legal record of jobs available — which the vocational expert will reference) and the “specific vocational profile” for each job (the training and skills different positions require). Your lawyer should know the ins-and-outs of your work history, your condition, and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). You having to understand the DOT well enough to critically question a vocational expert — would be tough.

How much does a lawyer cost? Can I afford one?

The short answer: up to 25% of your first disability benefit check, up to a maximum $7,200. 

Disability lawyers work on contingency agreements, which means they make no money upfront, and only get paid when they win your case. What exactly they win depends on how long your case takes, and how much “back pay” you get once you’re granted benefits. 

We wrote extensively about exactly what legal fees you can expect, and how much back pay your first check could include — if you’re looking for more detail. 

But the important thing is that applying for disability benefits can feel like a full-time job. Completing paperwork, following up with the SSA, tracking down medical records, and preparing for a hearing takes a lot of time and expertise. Having a lawyer means you pay nothing up front, and that you don’t have to go it alone.

How do I find the right lawyer for my case?

There are a few ways to vet and find a disability lawyer for your case. 

If you want to try to vet an attorney yourself, you should look at: 

  • Their primary area of practice (do they specialize in disability?)
  • Their location, or the areas they serve
  • Their reviews (critically evaluating for any recurring negative patterns)

We wrote up a list of four questions you should ask a disability lawyer to get a better sense of whether they’re trustworthy. But vetting a legal professional, without a legal background can be tricky. 

At Atticus, we’ve vetted dozens of attorneys across the country — diving into how they communicate with clients, how they prepare for a hearing, whether they’ll take tough cases, and whether they have SSDI/SSI specific legal expertise. If you’re looking for a lawyer — we’re happy to match you with someone in our network that we trust (our services are always free).

Once I decide I want to hire a lawyer, what’s the process like?

The process of hiring a lawyer, and getting them started on your case, is usually pretty straight forward. 

You call a lawyer (either one of you found on your own, or a match from Atticus)

  1. They’ll have a brief intake conversation — gathering additional context on your condition and your case. 
  2. If you mutually decide to move forward, they’ll send you some paperwork to sign. This will probably includes:A retainer agreement — essentially, an agreement that says you’ve hired them to work for you.Paperwork for the Social Security Administration — explaining that the SSA can pay them that agreed upon percentage of your first disability paycheck. Paperwork that gives them permission to access your medical records.
  3. They’ll get to work on your case — either helping you fill out your application, follow up with the SSA, or prepare for a hearing.

Sometimes a lawyer might not decide to take your case right away — they may want to better understand your condition before they confirm. In these instances, they may ask for permission to see your medical records first before proceeding with a retainer — or they may ask you to gather those records yourself.

What if I choose the wrong lawyer for my case?

You can fire your disability lawyer. But assuming you’ve signed a retainer with them, they’re not obligated to waive their contingency fee.

If they don’t, finding new legal representation can be difficult. And more often than not, working with an unideal lawyer is better than not having a lawyer at all. 

If your lawyer doesn’t waive their fee, and you do find someone who will take your case, your new lawyer will have to fill out a fee petition — paperwork that states they’ll split their fee with the attorney you fired. It’s an extra hoop few lawyers are willing to jump through.

That being said — there are still (rare) circumstances in which firing your lawyer might be the best bet. Namely, if they’re disrespectful to you or they miss important deadlines. If that’s the case, have a conversation with them first — and if you decide to seek their representation elsewhere, ask if they’re willing to waive their fee. 

The best way to avoid the additional complications is preventative: Critically evaluate your lawyer before hiring them (or rely on the experts at Atticus to source, vet, and evaluate your lawyer for you).

Hiring the right lawyer gives you the best chances of winning disability benefits

For most applicants, legal representation is critical. Beyond that — your lawyer should be genuinely helpful! They make the application process easier, keep you in-the-loop about your application status, and should be a valuable resource as you have questions or concerns. 

If you’re ready to get matched with an attorney you can trust — or just need some free legal advice — the team at Atticus is ready to help. Take our quick intake quiz to get started.

Ready to get benefits today?

Frequently asked questions about disability lawyers

What does a disability lawyer do?

A disability lawyer can help fill out your application, gather medical records, schedule medical care, and appeal denials. Lawyers have access to information on your case that the SSA may not share with you, and they’ll know how to best present your situation in a court hearing with an SSA judge (most people need a hearing). Applicants with lawyers are three times more likely to win benefits. Read more about what disability lawyers actually do for you.

Can you win disability benefits without a lawyer?

A lawyer isn’t required and you can win benefits without a lawyer. However, the process is complicated and technical — especially when you get to a court hearing. Working with a good lawyer triples your chances of winning an appeal.

How much does a disability lawyer cost?

Disability lawyers have a standard fee of 25% of your first check, up to a maximum of $7,200. Your lawyer only gets paid once and only if you win. If you don’t win benefits, you won’t pay anything. The fee can sound high but it comes out of your first check, which includes the months (or even years) of back pay that you’re entitled to. Learn more about disability lawyer fees.

How long does a disability appeal take with a lawyer?

The average disability appeal takes more than a year. Having a lawyer won’t slow down that process. In some cases, like if you hire them right before a hearing, your lawyer might request a later hearing date to better prepare for your case. But lawyers don’t drag out cases because they only get paid when you do.

Is there a difference between an SSDI lawyer and an SSI lawyer?

Disability lawyers handle both SSDI and SSI cases, but many do focus on SSDI. To find a disability lawyer near you, use our 2-minute disability benefits quiz.

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Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney

Jackie Jakab

Lead Attorney

Jackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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