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Do I Need a Lawyer to Apply for Disability Benefits?

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
December 5, 2022  ·  5 min read

If you’re applying for Social Security disability benefits, working with a lawyer isn’t necessary, but your chance of getting disability is much higher if you have a lawyer to help. Here’s more information about what a disability lawyer does, who may or may want to work with one, and how to find a good one.

Do I need a lawyer to apply for disability benefits?

You don’t need a lawyer to apply for disability benefits or to appeal if your benefits claim is denied. But even though it’s possible to go through the process on your own, a disability lawyer can be very helpful. Your chances of winning disability with a lawyer are also three times higher than if you apply on your own.

Some situations where it might not help much to work with a lawyer are cases where you know you automatically qualify for benefits. For example, if you’re applying with a terminal illness or a condition that’s on the compassionate allowance list, it’s easier to qualify on your own.

Some questions to ask yourself

Here are just some questions to ask yourself when deciding whether you should hire a lawyer:

  • Have you applied for disability before? If you've already applied for disability and your claim was denied, a lawyer can help you appeal or strengthen your claim before applying again.

  • Do you have clear medical records? One of the most common reasons for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to deny a benefits claim is because you don't have medical records that clearly show you meet the qualification requirements. Disability lawyers know those requirements and can help you get the medical care necessary to show the SSA you qualify.

  • Are you working right now? Even if you’re only working part-time, earning near or above $1,400 per month will likely disqualify you from benefits. A lawyer will help you understand how much work and what types of work you can do without hurting your benefits claim.

  • Are you receiving other types of benefits? You’ll have a harder time qualifying for benefits if you’re getting workers’ comp or unemployment benefits. A lawyer will be able to advise you based on your situation.

  • Do you know which benefits you qualify for? Lawyers can help you apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). If you're unsure which you need, they can help you understand how to qualify for benefits.

  • Are you over age 50? It’s easier for people over age 50 to get benefits so you may not need a lawyer, but make sure you also consider the questions above.

What does a lawyer actually do for you?

A disability lawyer will walk with you through every stage of the application process. Here are five specific things a lawyer can do to help your disability claim:

  1. Review your case and offer advice

  2. Help submit your application

  3. Gather your medical records and other documents

  4. File an appeal for you

  5. Represent you at a hearing

1. Review your case

A lawyer will always begin by looking at your situation and providing their advice. No matter what stage of the application process you’re in, they will:

  • Offer their opinion on your chances of winning

  • Make suggestions on how to improve your chances of winning

  • Explain how the process works and how long it might take

2. Help submit your application

If you haven’t applied for SSDI or SSI yet, a disability lawyer can help you fill out the application. It’s a long application, involving multiple forms and detailed questions about your health conditions and work history. A good disability lawyer will be very familiar with the application and can help you avoid common mistakes. They may even fill out the application for you.

Related: How to fill out the SSDI application

3. Gather your medical records and other documents

In addition to the disability application, you’ll also need medical records that show what health conditions you’ve been diagnosed with and any treatment you’ve received. The SSA will look for proof of specific symptoms or treatment, based on your disability. An experienced lawyer knows the exact requirements the SSA needs to see for your condition and they can help you gather those records from your medical team. If your health records are missing anything in particular, they can help you get the necessary documents. The lawyer will also help after you submit the application if the SSA requests any other paperwork.

Further reading: Which conditions qualify for disability benefits?

4. File an appeal for you

Unfortunately, the SSA denies about three-quarters of initial Social Security disability applications. If your application is denied, you can appeal your claim and (if it’s denied again) then your case will go to a hearing in front of a judge. You’re much more likely to win your claim at this stage, and a lawyer will help you file your appeal and prepare for the hearing. (Learn more about how a lawyer can help with your appeal.)

5. Represent you at a hearing

Working with a lawyer for your disability hearing is a major help. Before the hearing, they’ll explain what to expect, including who else is giving testimony (possibly a medical expert and vocational expert). Your lawyer will also help you prepare for questions the judge will ask during the hearing. Then during the hearing, the lawyer will be there to represent you and present your case to the judge.

How much does a disability lawyer cost?

A good lawyer won’t charge anything up front and you won’t have to pay them at all unless you win your case. At that time, a disability lawyer’s fee is 25% of your first check, which is mostly back pay — the benefits you would have received already if your initial application had been accepted.

The SSA will automatically remove the lawyer’s fee from your first check before you get it. And once your attorney is paid from your first check, that’s it — they won’t receive any additional compensation from your future checks. The maximum amount a lawyer can receive in 2023 is also limited to $7,200.

All of your lawyer fees will be explained in the agreement you sign with the lawyer, so make sure to read it carefully and ask any questions before signing.

How to find a good disability lawyer

If you’re looking for a lawyer, it’s important to find one that specializes in Social Security disability. Someone who’s experienced with handling (and winning) disability cases will be better able to help you through the process.

Atticus can help you find the right lawyer for your case — for free. We’ve handpicked disability lawyers from across the country to create a deep network of vetted attorneys. To get started, fill out our 2-minute disability benefits quiz and one of our team members will reach out to learn more about your situation and match you with a lawyer if you need one.

Triple your chances of getting approved. Get matched with a top disability lawyer 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.

See what you qualify for

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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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