After filing for disability, when should I get a lawyer or representative?
Should you get an attorney for your disability claim? There are different ways to approach the question. The only time I would say that a person would be exercising poor judgement in this regard would be a scenario in which they have a hearing scheduled (or requested) and are intent on going to the hearing alone and unrepresented.
That is, in my opinion, foolish. Even if I, a former disability examiner and a non-attorney disability representative, suddenly found myself filing a claim and I had a hearing to go to, I wouldn't go without representation nor would I try to represent myself simply because there is a basic value in having someone advocate your claim for you.
Regarding the majority of individuals who find themselves at the hearing, they will simply have no idea of how to interpret what is in their files (which will include prior decisions and residual functional capacity assessments), how the decision was made on their case at the application and reconsideration appeal levels, and what is needed to establish that their claim satisfies the SSA definition of disability. Furthermore, they will be completely unarmed if the judge has expert witnesses present at the hearing. However, all of this regards the hearing level.
At the disability application and reconsideration appeal levels, there is not as much urgency in having disability representation. Let me speak further on that. There are some representatives, attorney and non-attorney, who will make a vigorous attempt to get your case won at those earlier levels. And if you happen to get such a representative, it can be extraordinarily beneficial.
Why? Because if your case is won without the need for a hearing, it can save you over a year's time waiting for a hearing to be scheduled, and possibly months more waiting for your benefits to be received. All of which can have a profound financial impact. Having said this, though, many, perhaps most, representatives will not make a strong effort to develop your case at the application and reconsideration appeal levels. Very often, this is simply due to the volume of cases they handle and a belief that, statistically, making that sort of effort is not really worth their time and effort.
But, even if this is the case, a person who obtains early representation can still benefit. When you are represented, your representative is responsible for filing timely appeals for you. Which may not sound like an extraordinary amount of work, but the simple fact is that a fair number of people miss their appeal deadlines. When you have representation, the appeal gets filed and the case moves forward. Representatives also do other things to help ensure that the case moves along such as sending out reminders if you have a consultative examination scheduled by a disability examiner.
To answer the question: if you have a hearing that you have requested, I would say get an attorney or non-attorney representative. If your case has not gotten that far, make the decision based on an evaluation of your needs. Keep in mind the fact that you may win your case on your application or reconsideration appeal without the need for any assistance, but if you obtain representation at those levels and the case is approved you will have to pay the disability lawyer representative a fee (which will be automatically deducted from your back pay).
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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