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Beginning last week, Social Security's hearing offices do not disclose in advance of a disability hearing the identity of the particular administrative law judge (ALJ) that is assigned to a claim. So your hearing notice will arrive in the mail without stating the name of the judge that will hear the case and decide the claim. When you arrive at the hearing, you see who the judge will be.

This is a new policy, which just became effective December 19th. So hearing notices without judges' names are just beginning to arrive. 

The policy was a response, it seems, to representatives declining out-of-area video hearings when the assigned judge was a low-granting ALJ. Currently, a video hearing may be declined by a claimant or claimant's representative (see this post on video hearings). The only advantage of a video hearing is that your claim may be heard a little sooner. Why have a quicker hearing if you have a judge who grants half as many claims as the other judges in the hearing office? The SSA has responded to this practice by withholding the name of the Administrative law judge assigned to the claim, whether or not it is a video hearing.

The new policy is unfortunate. It is reassuring to know who your judge is for a hearing. Even if it is a judge who is difficult or has a low approval rate, at least you know. Clients are understandably very concerned about their hearings, and are often reassured by knowing a little about the judge assigned to decide their claim.

I can adjust my presentation at the hearing to the judge assigned to the case, because I know my local judges. So it is not the end of the world that you do not know the identity of the judge ahead of time (that is an advantage, by the way, of hiring an experienced Social Security disability attorney in your state, as opposed to a "national" advocacy firm). But different judges do conduct hearings in different ways, and it will no longer be possible to prepare the client for the particular judge conducting the hearing.

What is lost from my perspective is efficiency. It is much more efficient to prepare a case for hearing when you know the judge. When you are preparing for ALJ Unkown, you must prepare all aspects of the claim to a level of detail that would satisfy the most difficult judge in the hearing office on that particular issue. Of course, every claim should be prepared thoroughly, regardless of the judge assigned to it. 

My expectation is that this new policy will result in fewer video hearings with out-of-area judges, which is exactly the opposite of what the SSA is seeking to accomplish with the policy change.