If you have a Social Security dispute that you can’t resolve on your own, finding a lawyer is sometimes the next step. Since you may not have a lot of experience looking for lawyers – particularly lawyers specializing in Social Security – we put together a guide. How do you find the right one for your case?

Prequalify Yourself

Before even looking for a lawyer, know the basics of Social Security. Most cases that may need the help of a lawyer involve disability claims. Social Security disability is for people who have a medical condition that fits Social Security’s definition of a disability. And to qualify, you must have worked in jobs covered by Social Security. In other words, if you never paid in to Social Security, you’re not going to get anything out. (See How to Apply for Social Security Disability: Step by Step.) If you do qualify, you can get monthly benefits checks only if you are unable to work for at least one year because of disability. (See How Is Social Security Disability Calculated?) If you paid in to the system in the past and you won’t work for at least a year, your disagreement with Social Security probably stems from whether your medical condition is actually a disability under Social Security’s rules. That’s where the lawyer can help if you were already denied.

What a Lawyer Can and Can’t Do

If you’re looking for a lawyer in the hope of speeding up your appeal, you might be wasting your time. Whether you have a Social Security lawyer or not, it takes quite a while to get through the process. A good lawyer will never promise a faster approval. What they might say is that they can help you meet deadlines, compile and file all requested documentation and make sure everything’s completed properly and in a way that avoids any unnecessary holdups. 

Just like lawyers can’t speed up the process, they also can’t guarantee that you’ll win. With the help of a good lawyer, you’ll up your chances of winning, but lawyers can’t ethically say that they will win your case for you. If they do, that’s probably a lawyer to avoid. 

How to Find the Right Lawyer

You can find Social Security disability lawyers in a variety of ways. The Internet has plenty of lawyer referral sites. Legal aid clinics and referral services operated by state bar associations are also places to get names of people to interview. Be careful. Just because you find an attorney by searching one of these sources doesn’t guarantee they’ll be good, ethical lawyers. A better way to put together a list of lawyers to interview is probably word of mouth  – either directly or via social media – from people who have had good experiences with a Social Security disability lawyer. And you need to ask questions before hiring someone.

These Folks Are Busy

Social Security disability lawyers have a lot of cases. For that reason, they’re quite busy and spend a lot of time in court. Don’t be put off if you call and can’t speak to the attorney right away. You might talk to somebody in the office to get your first round of questions answered. Some initial questions could include:

  1. Do you have experience with clients that have [your medical condition]?
  2. How many approvals are at the hearing level?
  3. What percentage of your wins gained your client full benefits? How about partial benefits?

Although disability lawyers are busy, you want to hire one who has a staff of people who will answer any questions you have accurately and promptly. Here are some questions to ask along those lines:

  1. Will I have my own case manager?
  2. Tell me about your support staff.
  3. How often can I expect a call updating me on the progress of my case?
  4. Will you advance the cost of getting my medical records? (Most will.) 

Once you talk to the attorney, ask him/her some questions, too:

  1. How long have you practiced disability law?
  2. How many cases do you handle each year?
  3. How long have you practiced in this town/region?

How Much Will It Cost?

Most cases will cost you very little or nothing. That’s because lawyers will take their fees from any retroactive benefits you’re awarded from Social Security. The fee is limited to 25% of your past-due benefits up to a maximum of $6,000. The attorney will have you sign a document that allows Social Security to pay the law firm directly. Most lawyers will only get paid if they win your claim for you. If you get nothing, you owe the lawyer nothing.  

Because the lawyer will likely have to request medical, school, work and psychological records that come with a cost, they might pass on that fee to you (it is not counted as part of the 25% limit). However, it should only be a couple of hundred dollars at most. There may also be small fees related to postage and copying expenses as well. 

Before hiring a lawyer, ask about fee structure. If they tell you that it’s all paid by the Social Security Administration, ask them about any potential extra fees that might come out of your pocket.

The Bottom Line

Finding a good Social Security lawyer may make the difference between qualifying for benefits and being left out in the cold. Since it costs you nothing to get representation until you win, consider talking to somebody if you file a claim and get turned down initially.