The Social Security Disability Representation Fee and What a Lawyer is Paid

Disability lawyers are entitled to be paid up to 1/4th of an individual's back pay, and the amount of the fee for representation is currently capped by the Social Security Administration at $6,000. This fee is not a retainer; it is awarded to the attorney contingent upon if he wins the case. In other words, if he loses the case, he cannot collect a fee (other than incidental expenses included in the fee agreement.)

Social Security has raised the maximum allowable fee over the past 10 years from $4,000 to $6000. However, if you win, you do not necessarily pay the maximum. For instance, if the total back pay is $20,000, your attorney is entitled to collect only $5,000; if your total backpay is $1,200, your attorney can collect only $300, and so forth.

On the other hand, as previously noted, most attorneys and non-attorney reps will include incidental expenses in their fee agreements, perhaps charges for copying, obtaining medical records, travel, etc., so be sure to read any fee agreement carefully before signing it. Incidental expenses are due regardless of a claim's outcome.

If at any point during your case you become dissatisfied with your legal representative, you can usually let him go without financial penalty, unless of course you do this right before your hearing, after he has presumably done a considerable amount of preparation and leg work.

If you wait until the eleventh hour to switch representatives, your prior attorney will be more likely to dispute the fee (although, in all candor, it would be up to the attorney who is being discharged to decide whether or not he will file a fee petition, which is a claim for a portion of the representation fee, based on the work that he has performed on the case up to the time of the attorney's discharge).

You may wish to check in with your attorney regularly for status updates on your case to determine if you are indeed satisfied with your representation. Switching attorneys is best done well in advance of the actual hearing.

Granted, some people decide not to obtain legal counsel of any sort before their hearing; legal representation is not required at any stage of the disability process. Yet, while the idea of keeping all the back pay is understandably attractive, claimants are strongly cautioned that, according to government statistics, those who are represented by an attorney at an SSD or SSI hearing are about 50% more likely to win a case at the hearing level versus claimants who are not represented.

Given the fact that it can take up to two years to get the opportunity to appear before a disability judge (due to backlogs in the system), and the fact that, should you lose your case you usually have no choice other than to give up or to start all over again with a new claim, it makes little sense to go before a judge without adequate preparation, which usually implies legal assistance. The stakes are simply too high at this level of representation to take any unnecessary risks.

About the Author: Tim Moore is a former Social Security Disability Examiner in North Carolina, has been interviewed by the NY Times and the LA Times on the disability system, and is an Accredited Disability Representative (ADR) in North Carolina. For assistance on a disability application or Appeal in NC, click here.

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