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How to Win Social Security Disability Benefits Without a Lawyer

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
June 22, 2022  ·  6 min read

Most people wondering how to win social security disability without a lawyer assume applying is a straightforward process — you fill out the application explaining your disability, wait for a decision, and receive your check in the mail.

Do you really need a lawyer?

Unfortunately, the Social Security Administration (SSA) only accepts an average of 22 percent of initial applications, and the process gets much more complicated after that. There are three main stages of applying for Social Security Disability Insurance(SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI): first the initial application, then the appeal, and finally, the hearing.

With the SSA denying 63 percent of SSDI applications, having a lawyer help you fill out the forms can help you build your case. You’re three times more likely to win your case with an attorney than without one.

Here we’ll explain the application process with and without a lawyer and explain why most people need a disability lawyer to get benefits.

83% of people at the hearing stage have legal representation. If you do decide you want a lawyer, Atticus can help. We'll match you with the right legal team for free — and they'll only get paid when they win your case. Get started with our quick eligibility quiz.

Filing for SSI/SSDI with or without a lawyer

You first want to fill out the written applicationdisability report form, and submit copies of your medical records. If you’re filing for social security disability without a lawyer, you can submit the documents in several ways.

  • Option A: Make an in-person appointment

If you don't have a lawyer, you're best off filling out your form at an SSA office. A representative there may help explain the application. They can also add some light notes about you, including any visual comments about your disability. However, SSA representatives are only trained to answer technical questions about the forms. It’s not their job to help you fill them out in the way that’s most advantageous for your case.

  • Option B: File by phone

A Social Security agent can help answer any questions about the forms when you complete the application by phone, but the wait times have been long due to COVID — from 45 minutes to several hours.

  • Option C: Mail the application or submit it electronically. 

Filling out the paperwork at home is not the best option, but you can submit medical records with the initial submission if you mail in the application. Unfortunately, there is no way to submit medical records online.

Get free legal help (and a lawyer — only if you want one).

Below are some tips that can help you file independently, even though winning disability without a lawyer is unlikely.

Be really clear about your limitations on the report

In the section of the disability report that asks you what you do during the day, don’t just list out your daily tasks and chores. Instead, list the limitations you face when doing those chores. If you take breaks, or struggle to accomplish tasks — make sure that’s noted.

For example, you may explain, “I do my laundry, but it often takes me a few days because I have a hard time taking it out of the dryer.” Or, “I cook food, but it's mostly in the microwave because I can't stand over a pot anymore.”

Don’t exaggerate your pain

Your pain may be awful, but saying you’re in “level 10 pain” can sound unrealistic and hurt your credibility. Hospitals consider level 10 pain as being in danger of passing out.

The best strategy? Explain your symptoms without sounding unreasonable.

When you apply with a lawyer, they’ll help you answer the questions in the best way possible. The key is to strike a balance between being honest and answering questions in the most favorable way for your case.

Fill in any additional forms on time

A lawyer will help you fill in any additional forms and make sure they’re submitted on time to the SSA. They’ll also ensure the initial application doesn’t get lost, which happens frequently.

These should be filled out in the same way as the initial paperwork — never inflate your abilities, but also don't exaggerate your deficits.

Reconsideration with or without a lawyer

If the SSA rejects your initial application, you have 60 days to file the additional paperwork appealing the decision. If you miss the deadline, you’ll need to start the process again from the beginning.

If you’re wondering how to win a disability appeal without a lawyer, the good news is appeals are actually pretty easy to do on your own, you just have to check a box.

During the appeals stage, keep an eye on your mailbox. If you have unstable housing or mail that doesn’t get delivered, this can be a problem. A lawyer can help ensure everything goes smoothly.

The disability hearing with or without a lawyer

If your appeal is denied (most often, it is), the next step is a final court hearing. The hearing is complicated, as you’ll have to face a judge and a vocational expert from the government.

Can you win disability benefits without a lawyer? At this point, it’s not likely.

Self-guided approach

The vocational effort will make the case that you’re able to do certain jobs. You’ll need to cross-examine the vocational expert, challenging them with questions when they propose jobs they believe you could do.

A lawyer is trained to cross-examine vocational experts effectively, and learning enough about the law to do so yourself would be very challenging. Letting the vocational expert proceed without cross-examination will drastically hurt your case.

Getting a lawyer

Given the complexity of a hearing, it’s very difficult to win without a lawyer. While legal help can be a huge advantage at any stage of the process, if your case goes to a hearing — having representation is critical.

In most cases, if your hearing is fast approaching, you can attend, and tell the judge, "I want a lawyer." The court will likely give you time to find a lawyer, allowing you to postpone the hearing for at least a month.

Disability lawyers only take a commission if you win your case, which can only go up to 25% of your back pay or $7,200, whichever is lower.

Exceptions and rare cases

There are rare instances, such as Terminal Illness (TERI) cases, where you can win without a lawyer. In these cases, an application would never get to a hearing. Most applicants with an untreatable terminal illness automatically get accepted for a disability claim.

If you’ve filed for TERI or compassion allowance, call your local Disability Determination Services (DDS). Tell them, “I’ve filed a TERI application and have this certain condition, be on the lookout for my report.”

The SSA sometimes even fast-tracks your application, which can significantly speed up the process from months to just weeks. It’s important to send medical evidence with your application right away.

Can you win disability benefits without a lawyer?

Applying is a complex process. Not having a lawyer can make applying for and winning your case even more challenging.

Before dismissing legal help, ask yourself why you don’t want to get a lawyer? There are no upfront fees, and they only charge if you win your case.

If you decide you do want to work with a lawyer, Atticus can match you with a vetted expert for your case. Our services are always free. Get started 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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