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Do I Need a Lawyer to Apply for Disability?

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
July 14, 2022  ·  5 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 Social Security disability benefits. And we’ve learned a few core truths: Yes, you likely need a disability lawyer — and yes, you can afford one. And who you hire as your disability lawyer can make or break your case.

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

Do I need a lawyer to apply for disability?

While you don’t technically need a lawyer to apply for disability, your odds of winning disability benefits increase threefold with a lawyer. 

Advantages of working with a lawyer

In addition to increasing your chances of getting benefits, a disability attorney can:

  • Help you navigate every stage of the application, appeal, and hearing process.

  • Effectively evaluate whether or not you’ll qualify for Social Security benefits (and which disability program you best qualify for). 

  • Prove to the government or a judge that you’re medically unable to work.

When is the best time to hire a disability lawyer?

For most people, the question is less “Do I need a disability lawyer?” and more “When do I need a lawyer?” Here’s what you need to know:

  • Before you apply: 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 it out for you or walk you through the process. They’ll give critical advice on how to answer the questions most favorably. They’ll collect the right medical evidence and make sure any follow-up paperwork is submitted on time. Applying for disability benefits — communicating with the SSA, gathering paperwork, and completing the application correctly — can feel like a full-time job. There’s no disadvantage to bringing in a lawyer early and letting them do the heavy lifting. 

  • During the appeals process: If you have filled out your initial 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. 

What conditions automatically qualify you for disability?

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. Here’s the complete list of conditions on the compassionate allowance list.

For most applicants, trying to win without a lawyer puts you at a severe disadvantage. 

What does a lawyer do for me?

Here’s what your lawyer can do for you at every stage of the process:

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 advise you on what you can do to improve those chances, for example, working less or seeing a specialist more regularly. 

As you apply

Most disability attorneys 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. 

If your application is denied

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.

When your case goes to a hearing

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

Whether you have a lawyer at your appeal hearing can make or break your case (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 the vocational expert requires extensive knowledge of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (a lengthy legal record of every possible job) 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 and condition, as well as the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). 

How much does a disability lawyer cost?

A disability lawyer’s fee can be 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. Put simply, your lawyer doesn’t get paid until you do.

Exactly how your lawyer gets depends on how long your case takes and how much back pay you receive in your first check. 

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 choose a lawyer on your own, pay attention to: 

  • Their primary area of practice: Do they specialize in disability?

  • Their location or the areas they serve: Most disability hearings happen over a video call, so your lawyer doesn’t necessarily have to live in the same state or city as you. Make sure they can legally serve your area and are familiar with local laws.

  • Their reviews: Look for online reviews and critically evaluate candidates for any recurring negative patterns.

Finding the right lawyer can be daunting, but you don’t have to do it alone. At Atticus, we’ve vetted dozens of attorneys across the country and we’re happy to match you with someone in our network. (And our services are always free).

What to expect after you hire a disability lawyer

The process of hiring a lawyer and getting them started on your case is usually pretty straightforward. Here’s how it will go:

  1. You’ll call a lawyer (either one you found on your own or a match from Atticus).

  2. You’ll have a brief intake conversation where the lawyer will gather additional context on your condition and your case. 

  3. If you mutually decide to move forward, they’ll send you some paperwork to sign. Sometimes, a lawyer might not decide to take your case immediately — they may want to better understand your condition before confirming. In these instances, they may ask for permission to see your medical records before proceeding with a retainer — or they may ask you to gather those records yourself.

  4. The paperwork you’ll sign will probably include 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; and paperwork that permits them to access your medical records.

  5. 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 — depending on what stage of the process you’re in.

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 a less-than-perfect lawyer is better than not having a lawyer. 

Working with a new lawyer

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

When to fire your lawyer

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).

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. 

Can you win disability benefits without a lawyer?

A lawyer isn’t required, and you can win benefits without one. 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.

What’s the most a disability lawyer can charge?

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. 

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, for example, 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 — remember, your lawyer won't get paid until you're awarded disability benefits.

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 Social Security Disability Insurance. To find a disability lawyer near you, take 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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