We can’t say this enough: The Social Security Disability claims process is complicated, and even minor mistakes and oversights can cause an application to be denied.
That’s why we always suggest finding representation as early as possible in the process, or at least scheduling a free consultation with a disability attorney who offers one (like we do). Over and over, our clients say they wish they had talked to someone before they ever submitted their application.
If you work with Joyce & Bary Law, you will be represented by an experienced disability attorney. However, disability attorneys aren’t the only option for representation. Some applicants choose to work with a non-attorney representative, also known as a disability advocate.
Both attorneys and non-attorney representatives can guide you through the application process, and there are definitely some skilled and knowledgeable non-attorney reps out there. Still, there are some differences to know about before making a decision.
What is a non-attorney representative?
A non-attorney representative, or disability advocate, is a person who assists Social Security Disability applicants in making their claims. Advocates may work independently, in an attorney’s office, or as part of a company that employs only non-attorney representatives.
While a non-attorney representative does not have a law degree, they are required to pass a certification test demonstrating their understanding of the Social Security Administration’s rules and regulations. Like lawyers, they must also complete continuing education requirements to stay in good standing with SSA.
Non-attorney representatives help claimants complete their initial applications and gather the supporting documentation. Sometimes, they communicate with Social Security directly on behalf of their clients. They might also represent applicants in an appeal at the hearing level or Social Security’s Appeals Council.
Non-attorney representatives can go all the way through the administrative appeals process. However, non-attorney representatives cannot file a claim in federal district court if it is rejected by the Appeals Council. That appeal requires an attorney.
What are a non-attorney representative’s qualifications?
To qualify as a non-attorney representative, an individual must:
- Have a bachelor’s degree or an equivalent combination of education and experience
- Pass a criminal background check
- Pass a written exam administered by SSA
- Complete continuing education requirements
- Maintain professional liability insurance as directed by SSA
Often, non-attorney representatives have a professional background that includes experience in a law office helping individuals complete SSD applications and file appeals. Others may have worked for Social Security.
What are a disability attorney’s qualifications?
Attorneys’ qualifications include a mix of formal education, experience, and professional affiliations that hold them accountable for ethics and behavior. To practice law in Virginia, an attorney must be admitted to the state bar. To maintain good standing with a state bar, a lawyer must:
- Pass a state bar exam
- Pass a criminal background check
- Complete continuing legal education courses
- Adhere to rules and regulations that govern ethical behavior
As members of the state bar, attorneys are subject to review if a complaint is made against them, and disciplinary action, including possible disbarment, for violating rules of conduct. And of course, communications between lawyers and clients are protected by attorney-client privilege, even after a case is finished.
Finally, an attorney can help you at any stage of the claims process, from initial application all the way through an appeal to federal district court. Given the tight deadlines throughout the disability application process, working with one person from start to finish has advantages.
But do I really need an attorney?
If filing for Social Security Disability were as straightforward as filling out the application and waiting for your approval, no one would ever need an attorney to apply for benefits.
But two-thirds of initial applications are denied, requiring a reconsideration and hearing or more.
Here are some of the things an attorney can do to help:
Prepare your application
At Joyce & Bary Law, our team takes on most of the work of preparing your initial application. After a thorough intake, we will complete your application on your behalf, working with you to assemble your work history, medical records and other evidence. Our attorneys are directly involved in this work and organize your evidence from the start to be ready for multiple levels of appeal.
We’ll also communicate with Social Security on your behalf. If you hear from them directly, you can send them to us.
Help you tell your story
Part of the purpose of a disability hearing is to give an administrative law judge a chance to hear directly from a claimant about how their impairments have affected them.
If you’ve dealt with a chronic condition, you know that keeping track of all your symptoms and recounting your journey can be overwhelming. Our clients are frequently concerned that they will leave out important details or say the wrong thing in front of the ALJ.
Attorneys have the experience and training to more effectively help SSD applicants share testimony. As we explain to our clients, while you’re talking to the ALJ, your attorney is listening carefully to ensure that all the most important details are shared. When the ALJ is finished, your attorney will have a chance to follow up with additional questions for you. If you’ve forgotten something or gotten confused, we will ask questions that get missing details or necessary clarifications on the record.
Effectively cross-examine expert witnesses at the hearing
Your hearing may include testimony from expert witnesses sharing medical or vocational data. So often, it’s data in this testimony that results in a claim being denied, yet time after time, the testimony goes completely unchallenged.
An attorney won’t let that happen.
Part of case preparation at Joyce & Bary Law includes anticipating the possible testimony of expert witnesses and being ready to call it into question if it contains something that’s weak or inaccurate.
For example, a vocational witness might testify that, based on your limitations, you can do sedentary work. Based on your work history and education, the witness might give examples of jobs you could hold based on occupational data the SSA uses to make vocational determinations.
We have access to the same data, and we know that much of it is outdated and irrelevant to today’s workforce and economy. We know which occupations tend to come up because we’ve been in so many hearings. Our cross-examination will get a challenge on the record so the testimony isn’t simply accepted at face value.
File an appeal in federal district court
The Appeals Council is the final step in Social Security’s administrative process. If your claim is denied at this level, your final opportunity to win benefits is to appeal to federal court.
Not all cases go to federal court. At this stage, the judge’s decision is not just about whether the claimant is disabled. The judge is looking for mistakes of law or judgment in the ALJ’s decision, and the standard is very high.
A non-attorney representative cannot represent you in federal court.
After reviewing your case, the judge has three choices:
- Uphold the decision of the ALJ.
- Remand the case, which means it goes back to the ALJ for further review
- Overturn the decision of the ALJ and Appeals Council and award benefits
A favorable outcome — that is, the judge remands (more likely) or awards benefits (less likely) — means that the judge has decided that the ALJ made a mistake or didn’t fully consider certain factors or evidence.
Is there a difference in cost between an attorney and a non-attorney rep?
“All that’s fine, but I can’t afford an attorney” Is that what you’re thinking?
You might be surprised to learn that the answer is NO! It doesn’t cost more to use a licensed attorney.
Social Security regulations allow any representative, whether an attorney or non-attorney representative, to collect no more than 25 percent of past-due disability benefits owed to the applicant, with a cap of $7,200. This fee is contingency-based, which means the representative only gets paid if you are awarded retroactive benefits. The SSA will pay the representative directly.
(Note that whether you work with a lawyer or a disability advocate, you may be required to pay a nominal charge for out-of-pocket costs incurred by the representative. This amount covers the costs of obtaining medical records.)
Can Joyce & Bary Law help me?
Joyce & Bary Law accepts clients at every stage of Social Security’s administrative disability process. We will tell you up front whether or not we think we can help, and it doesn’t cost a thing to talk to us about your case. Give us a call today or contact us online to get started.