Note: The SSDI, SSI disability system is federal and nationally standardized, though there are state differences in approval rates, wait times, the number of appeals available–as of the time of this writing–and even the name given to the stage disability agency (DDS, or the Bureau or Division of Disability Determination). Now, to answer the question…
I hear I should get an attorney that specializes in disability cases. My case worker at my local Social Security office says there’s no difference. That all the lawyer does is set up the court hearing. Is that really the case? Does my choice of lawyer make a difference?
Just to clarify, there are no caseworkers at the Social Security office. They are CRs (claims representatives). Case workers are found at DSS (department of social services). I am a former caseworker myself and also a former disability examiner who worked to make decisions on SSD and SSI claims at North Carolina DDS, or disability determination services.
Now, as to what the lawyer or non-attorney disability representative does (I am a non-attorney), requesting a hearing date is the smallest of what they do. Requesting a hearing before an ALJ (administrative law judge) is simply a matter of filing out a form on paper or online.
The real work has to do with hearing preparation and presenting the case before the ALJ, which may involve interacting with a medical expert and/or a vocational expert if the judge has seen fit to have an expert witness appear at the hearing.
Does your choice of lawyer make a difference? It can. Ideally, you want someone you can easily communicate with. This will mean, in most cases, a local representative versus someone you see in a TV commercial (without a doubt, the TV guys provide the very worst level of representation and only see you as a “fee”).
Additionally, make sure you read whatever fee agreement the prospective rep wants you to sign. The actual fee amount is regulated by the Social Security Administration (if they win your case, they receive 1/4 of your back pay, up to a maximum that can never exceed $6000).
But representatives can charge for “incidental expenses”…and while some representatives only want reimbursement for the cost of getting medical evidence for your case (which is entirely reasonable), others will want reimbursement for every paper clip they use. Note: if you get a TV lawyer who is out of state, there’s a good chance they will want you to reimburse them for travel expenses to and from your hearing.
It goes without saying that you don’t want this kind of representative. Last note: you also don’t want a “part-time representative”. This is often an attorney who handles traffic cases, personal injury cases, malpractice cases, and only enough disability claims so that he or she knows just enough to be dangerous to your case. You want a specialist. That means a lawyer who only does disability cases, or a non-attorney advocate who only does disability cases and is possibly a former SSA field office worker, or a disability claims examiner like myself.