When you come to the realization that you need help for your Social Security claim (read more about how a lawyer can help you), the next step is to find the best lawyer for you. That is both easier and harder than it may seem.
It is easier because you do not have base your decision on the amount of the fee. Attorney fees are regulated by the Social Security Administration, and any fee paid must have prior approval by the SSA (read more about attorney's fees). Just about everyone practicing in this area charges the same 25% contingency fee. So when selecting a lawyer, price is not a differentiator.
It can be harder because there are traps for the unwary.
Here are some factors that I think are important to consider when seeking the right lawyer for you:
Hire a real attorney
Many claimants do not realize that you do not have to be an attorney to represent someone before the Social Security Administration. To the contrary, a claimant's representative is not required to have any credentials or experience at all. Non-attorney representatives often use the same contingency fee agreement and charge the same fee as lawyer would. So some claimants assume they have hired a lawyer, when in fact they have not.
Now, I know some very capable non-attorney representatives, and most were former Social Security employees who learned the system from the inside. But you should at least know whether or not your representative is a lawyer. I have seen many new websites lately for non-attorney representives that look just like law firm websites. So don't be confused.
Hire a specialist
You want someone who devotes most of his or her practice to Social Security disability claims. It is a surprisingly complicated area of law that has little in common with a litigation practice. In my opinion, you don't want the local lawyer who did your neighbor's divorce or your friend's OUI. Social Security law is unique, and it really does help to specialize. You should look for someone who has conducted hundreds of hearings. Experience can make an important difference, particularly with a close claim.
Hire someone who is in your state
A Social Security disability claim is a federal adminstrative proceeding, so representation has no state boundaries. A lawyer (or nonlawyer, for that matter) can legally represent claimants living anywhere in the country. But the last thing you want, in my view, is an attorney who flies in to attend your hearing and meets you for the first time right before the hearing. I maintain offices in both Maine and New Hampshire, and I meet my clients much earlier in the claim process, well ahead of the hearing.
More importantly, a lawyer from your state will have experience with the administrative law judge deciding your case. Every judge considers a disability claim a little bit differently, and I tailor my prehearing briefs and hearing presentations to the particular judge deciding the claim. It makes a difference. I have hearings with the same judges in the Portland and Manchester hearing offices over and over again. I know what to expect from them and they know what to expect from me.
Attending hearings with the same set of judges is the main reason that I limit my Social Security disability practice to the states of Maine and New Hampshire. But there are other reasons, as well. I interact with the same staff at the local Social Security offices over and over again. I have good relationships with these professionals. Further, I work repeatedly with the many of the same doctors and counselors. I believe that all these relationships help my clients get better results.
Your lawyer should be readily available to you
I talk with my clients on the phone, meet with them, and trade emails. I can be reached. Of course, there are times that I might have to call you back, and office visits are by appointment. But I am accessible, and I think that's important.
Beware the case manager, a staff person that handles your case until just before the hearing, when your case is then handed off to the lawyer conducting the hearing. In my office, I am your case manager. Don't get me wrong, I have a terrific paralegal who runs the office, obtains records and medical source statements from your doctors, and works extensively on your claim. But we work together, and I manage your claim from the beginning.
Please get a lawyer involved early
Consider hiring an attorney sooner rather than later. Remember, there is no cost up front, and no fee at all unless you receive benefits. The sooner a lawyer is involved, the more potential to make your case stronger. An attorney can also be your guide through a difficult process. You don't have to go it alone.