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What Do Social Security Disability Lawyers Do (That I Can’t)?

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
June 23, 2022  ·  6 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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Applying for Social Security disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA) is complex.

Even if you make it through the application process on your own, there is still a long road ahead.

If you’re on the fence about working with a disability lawyer or want to know how a lawyer works on your behalf, you’re in the right place. We’ll explain whether or not you need a lawyer to file a claim and what they do at each step in the disability case process.

Do I need a lawyer to apply for disability?

The SSA doesn’t require you to have legal representation. However, a disability attorney will work with you to simplify the process and increase the odds of winning your case.

Should I get a lawyer for Social Security disability?

Your chances of winning disability benefits are three times higher if you partner with a lawyer. You don’t have anything to lose by consulting with a lawyer because, legally, they can’t charge anything upfront. If you win, they recoup their fees from your first paycheck (up to 25% of your first check, or a maximum of $7,200).

What does a Social Security disability lawyer do?

A lawyer can help assess your case, submit your application, obtain medical records, and navigate the appeals process:

Assess your case

Whether you find a lawyer on your own or use Atticus’ free service to get connected with a vetted lawyer, you can expect the following during an initial consultation:

  • A lawyer will give you an honest assessment of your chances of winning. While a lawyer can’t say for sure if you will win, they will give you an educated guess on your chances of winning. They should also tell you if the SSA or a judge will deny your case based on how your condition affects your day-to-day life.

  • A lawyer will suggest how you can improve your likelihood of succeeding.

    Law firms and lawyers who specialize in disability law know what a judge will look for in determining whether to grant you financial support. An attorney will suggest how you can increase your chances of winning, by obtaining specific medical records and work-related documents or seeing a specialist for your condition.

  • A lawyer will explain how long the process can take. If your claim is denied and goes to a hearing, it may be a few years before you see any disability income. A lawyer will break down the legal process and explain how long each step will take.

Help you submit your application

Whether you are filing for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), the government requires you to fill out an extensive application to prove that you cannot work and need financial assistance. To win your case, you have to convince the SSA, without question, that your medical condition is so severe that you cannot work even in a modified role.

Most people are unaware of the nuances and details needed to obtain disability benefits, leading the SSA to deny 80 percent of applicants.

A lawyer will submit your application, or work with you to make sure you cover all of the important bases and avoid making claim-denying mistakes.

Obtain medical records

To prove your medical condition inhibits you from working, the government requires proof from medical experts to support your claim.

Disability lawyers know what evidence is critical for your application and how to get it quickly from your medical team. In rare cases where they can’t obtain that information themselves, they’ll work with you so that you know exactly what to request from your medical providers.

Navigate the appeals process

If the Social Security Administration wants more information from you (ie. a work history report or a function report), after you submit your application, that paperwork needs to be turned around in 10 days or less.

If your claim is denied, you have 60 days to appeal it from the day you're initially denied.

Lawyers know the importance of filing all supplemental paperwork quickly — and what to include to keep your case moving in a positive direction.

A lawyer keeps track of the appeal deadlines, updates the appeal with new information, and keeps you informed on what’s happening throughout the process.

Prepare you for and represent you at a hearing

If the SSA denies your claim after you appeal it, your case will go to a hearing before an administrative law judge. At this hearing, the judge may ask you probing questions to determine if you really need the financial assistance you’re seeking.

Your lawyer will meet with you before this hearing to practice the answers you should give. While you may feel that you can answer easily on your own, the judge may ask questions in a way that could throw you off and cause you to say something that isn’t accurate.

It is your lawyer’s responsibility to prepare you for the array of questions you will face at the hearing.

In addition to preparing you for your hearing, your lawyer will be at the hearing to represent you and your case. They’ll cross-examine witnesses that the judge may bring forth. These witnesses may testify that you are more capable of working than you claim to be, based on their understanding of your job or medical condition.

Your lawyer has your best interest in mind during the hearing. They want you to win your case and will do whatever it takes to make that happen. If you win, they get paid for their work in supporting you through the disability claims process.

Learn more: How to answer questions at a disability hearing

Handle post-hearing filings and appeals

The best-case scenario is that a judge determines you are unable to work and need financial help. At that point, your claim is approved and you should start to receive benefits in one to two months.

If the judge denies your case, a lawyer will either take your case to the federal appeals court or suggest a legal team that can.

What can an SSDI lawyer do that I can't?

Even if you have the willpower and the time to submit your application, partnering with a lawyer has certain advantages. Consider the following benefits of working with a lawyer:

Lawyers can access the Social Security Administration’s Electronic Records Express. 

Attorneys and representatives have access to the SSA’s Electronic Records Express (ERE). This record portal includes all the information on an applicant’s case, including files like medical records and the Work History Report. A lawyer can ensure the SSA has all the crucial information for your case and will follow up with the SSA if any documents from your application are missing from the ERE.

Individuals applying without representation cannot access the ERE, even applicants who apply online. The only way to confirm receipt of documents and find up-to-date information is to call the SSA every day. Unfortunately, it is typical for medical records to get lost in the shuffle, especially if sent by snail mail. 

Lawyers can write on-the-record briefs.

Disability lawyers and representatives can provide supplementary documents to support your application, such as an on-the-record brief. This document summarizes years of medical records in a few pages and can encourage an Administrative Law Judge to grant benefits without a hearing.

OTR briefs are especially helpful if an applicant has a significant medical condition that affects their ability to function. Submitting this document can save the claimant, lawyer, and judge’s time. 

Lawyers are familiar with Social Security codes and GRID rules. 

The SSA uses its own method to categorize medical conditions and vocational abilities, known as GRID rules. These guidelines differ from how medical providers classify conditions.

A lawyer or legal representative knows the questions to ask medical providers and applicants to yield the answers the SSA looks for on an application, like the length of time the patient can stand and if they can handle objects. 

Lawyers keep SSA representatives honest.

SSA representatives are human and can make mistakes. An SSA representative might give an applicant misinformation about processes and deadlines, and they are none the wiser. 

A disability attorney or legal representative is familiar with every stage of the application process and can flag if something goes awry. Having a representative in your corner can help ensure the process goes smoothly, every step of the way.

How Atticus can help

Hopefully, we’ve shed some light on what a disability lawyer does behind the scenes to improve your chances of winning your case.

At Atticus, we match you with a qualified, pre-screened lawyer if you’re eligible for disability benefits.

To determine your eligibility, take our brief quiz! If you qualify, a member of our legal team will connect with you within 48 hours.

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.

Related resources:

What Conditions Qualify for Disability?

A hand drawn image of the lead disability lawyer.
By Jackie Jakab

Everything You Should Know About Disability Benefits (SSDI and SSI)

By Sarah Aitchison

See what you qualify for

How long has your condition made it hard to work?

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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