Should You Hire a Disability Lawyer? What Do They Do?

Learn when to hire a disability lawyer or advocate and how they can help you win your Social Security disability case.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law

People who hire an attorney or advocate to help with a Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) application have a better chance of getting benefits. Having an expert on your side gives you some clear advantages. Understanding what experts do can help you decide if hiring a legal representative is the right choice for you.

Disability Experts Understand the Medical Evidence Needed to Win

The single most important factor to winning your claim is having the right medical evidence. Applicants frequently don't know exactly what to give the Social Security Administration (SSA). That means you could end up submitting too much irrelevant information and too little of what matters.

Disability attorneys and advocates know how to develop the evidence needed for approval based on your particular medical conditions. A good disability attorney or advocate will review your file carefully to decide whether you need any additional tests or medical records. Your legal representative will then work with you to get the necessary records and submit them on time to the SSA.

Your representative will also make sure that irrelevant information isn't submitted. That's especially important if your claim goes to the hearing level because administrative law judges (ALJs) often become aggravated if they have to sift through hundreds of pages of irrelevant records.

Disability Lawyers and Advocates Know How to Communicate With Medical Providers

A supportive opinion from your doctor(s) is vital to winning a disability claim. But doctors are sometimes unwilling to help disability applicants. There are many different reasons why your doctor might not want to help. For example, your doctor might:

  • be unfamiliar with the disability process
  • feel too busy to fill out forms
  • have personal opinions about Social Security benefits, or
  • simply not believe that you're disabled.

Doctors are sometimes more likely to respond to another "professional," like a disability attorney or advocate, than to their own patients. Disability attorneys and advocates have experience dealing with reluctant medical professionals. As such, they can often address a doctor's questions or concerns better than you could. This ability could make your doctor(s) more willing to help with your claim.

Attorneys Are Experts in the Disability Hearing Process

If you have a lawyer, you're more likely to win your disability claim on appeal. Most disability attorneys have a lot of experience with the Social Security appeal hearing process.

Your disability attorney will have learned how to work through the process correctly, how to prevent mistakes, and handle other difficulties. All that experience gives your attorney the specialized skills needed to win your appeal.

Disability Attorneys Often Know the Administrative Law Judges

Disability attorneys are often familiar with the administrative law judges (ALJs) in their district. This can be helpful to your case because your attorney likely understands two key factors:

  • how the ALJ likes a hearing to be conducted, and
  • whether the ALJ has any biases towards certain medical conditions.

Knowing these things will allow your attorney to prepare for your hearing in the way best suited for the particular ALJ assigned to hear your case.

Disability Lawyers Know How to Handle "Bad Facts"

It's not uncommon for an applicant's medical records to contain information that can be harmful to the case. Attorneys often call these "bad facts" and they can come in many forms, including:

  • a doctor's opinion stating that you're not disabled or that you're exaggerating your symptoms
  • medical records that show you haven't seen a doctor for many years, or
  • evidence that you've been inconsistent in following a treatment plan.

Regardless of the specifics of the "bad facts," your disability attorney will know how to confront and explain the issues to the ALJ and minimize the damage to your case.

Lawyers Can Cross-Examine the Vocational Expert

Vocational experts (VEs) are experts hired by the SSA to testify at hearings about what work they think applicants can do in light of their medical conditions. At your hearing, the ALJ will ask the VE a series of questions called "hypotheticals." These questions will use your documented symptoms to see what kinds of jobs the VE thinks you can do.

The VE's testimony carries a lot of weight at a disability hearing. If the VE testifies that you can still work, the ALJ will almost certainly deny your claim.

Disability lawyers are trained to counter testimony that could hurt your case. Your attorney will also know how to coax the vocational expert into saying things that support your disability claim. This skill requires special expertise and an understanding of the complex way VEs categorize different jobs and the skills needed to do them.

Your Lawyer Can Make Sure You're Asked the Right Questions

During your disability hearing, the ALJ will ask you questions to learn the following:

  • whether you're being truthful about your symptoms
  • the extent to which you've been affected by your impairment(s)
  • the reason for any inconsistencies in your medical records
  • the success or failures of treatment(s) you've tried, and
  • details about your work history.

Your attorney will also get the chance to ask you questions. This is important because if there are any areas in your testimony that weaken your case, your attorney knows how to handle it. Your lawyer is trained to spot problems and ask additional questions to correct or clarify your testimony.

Your attorney can also ask questions in a way that helps you better explain—and the ALJ better understand—how your medical condition affects your daily activities and your ability to work.

Disability Lawyers Know the Arguments That Win Disability Appeals

There are many "arguments" (also called theories) that can be used to win a disability claim. An attorney understands Social Security's rules and the regulations on which they are based. This is how your lawyer knows which arguments will work best in your case.

Your attorney will decide on the best argument, then decide how to use the facts of your case to meet the requirements of the SSA rules. Your attorney will all need to anticipate any weaknesses in your case and decide how best to manage them. These arguments can be complex and sometimes difficult to understand unless you're trained in disability law.

Here are a few examples of theories your lawyer might use to explain to the ALJ why you qualify as disabled:

  • the combination of your impairments keeps you from working
  • the SSA's medical-vocational grid rules call for a finding of disabled
  • your medical condition meets or equals one of the SSA's impairment listings
  • you have both exertional and non-exertional impairments that prevent you from working (like mental health issues), or
  • the vocational expert (VE) improperly used your past work when determining whether there were jobs you could still do.

An experienced disability attorney will know which theory will work best in your case and how to use all the evidence and testimony to prove your claim.

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