Here's what you should know when hiring a Social Security disability attorney
According to a report published by the Social Security Administration in 2018, an average of just 22 percent of applicants are awarded benefits at the time of the initial claim.Posted — Updated
Social Security is one of the most important government programs to Americans. Nearly all American citizens pay into the Social Security program and should expect to reap benefits at some point in their lifetime, but it can be a fight to receive them.
Take Social Security disability benefits, for example. According to a report published by the Social Security Administration in 2018, an average of just 22 percent of applicants are awarded benefits at the time of the initial claim. Claims may be denied for various reasons, ranging from insufficient medical evidence and income levels, to failure to follow doctor-prescribed treatments, but human and program-related errors can also play a part.
Raleigh-based attorney Scott Scurfield, who's been working with Social Security disability clients since 2010, knows this first hand.
"It's far from a perfect system," admitted Scurfield, a bar-certified specialist in Social Security disability law.
He once worked with a client who was both a veteran and bilateral, below-the-knee amputee. Despite physical limitations and written proof the man had been in the Veterans Affairs hospital, the initial claim was denied. The man sought help from Scurfield, who assisted in preparing his appeal. While benefits were eventually granted by a judge, the approval occurred months after the initial attempt.
"There are a lot of stories like that that have people who are really clearly disabled, but the system sometimes fails them," Scurfield said. "That's why you have to go through the motions of getting a hearing before you can get the Social Security office to do what they're supposed to do in the first place."
There's no rule requiring individuals who believe they're eligible for Social Security disability benefits to hire legal help. Many first-time applicants go at it alone, from submitting their initial application to filing an appeal and appearing before a judge.
Scurfield, however, considers this a mistake.
"You don't have to have an attorney, and some people do it on their own. But I don't recommend it," Scurfield said. "They've run statistics that show you're more likely to get approved if you have an attorney than if you don't."
According to Scurfield, the Social Security landscape is complex and quirky, and those who seek disability benefits without legal assistance may find themselves overwhelmed by a maze of odd hearing structures, extensive and complex forms, medical documentation requests, and more.
An attorney can ease the burden if the initial case is denied by guiding the client through filing an appeal, obtaining supporting physician statements, and providing recourse if clients aren't satisfied with the monthly or retroactive benefits received. Oftentimes, Social Security disability attorneys like Scurfield also have teams that are available after hours to answer questions and provide updates.
The majority of Scurfield's clients come to him after their claim has been denied, but he encourages individuals to speak with an attorney before beginning their application.
"Timing is huge. People wait until later in the process to hire a lawyer. It's understandable, but you don't pay more to hire a lawyer earlier in the process than you would if you're on your last leg."
Applicants who choose to rely on a lawyer should talk to the lawyer before hiring one. Have a few simple questions ready for your lawyer. First, ask about their Social Security disability experience — generally, more is better. Find out about their experience with cases similar to yours.
Ask if the charge will be a flat fee or based on an hourly rate. Some lawyers charge regardless of the outcome, whereas others like Riddle & Brantley work off a contingency fee, meaning you don't pay unless they win your case and you receive financial compensation.
You'll also want to find out how the firm helps its clients keep a close pulse on the status of their case. An attorney with a team is a positive sign of communicative horsepower, as associates can keep you in the loop via emails or phone calls when the attorney is unavailable.
Last, ask if the attorney is a bar-certified specialist in Social Security disability law, which will mean they know this area of the law intimately and how it works. Scurfield, who received his certification in 2017, believes working with a specialist is beneficial.
"It's easy to dabble in this area of the law, and you don't have to do anything in particular to prove your knowledge of the subject matter," Scurfield said. "But you do have to prove it to get certified as a specialist. You don't pay any more for a specialist."
To become a bar-certified Social Security disability attorney, lawyers are required to pass a rigorous exam and maintain good standing in the area of practice. They also have to show substantial involvement in Social Security disability law every year. Scurfield said qualifying for his certification took roughly two years.
Hiring a specialist can cut down the amount of work you have to do in finding a competent disability lawyer. Instead of narrowing down your choices from 100 local options, you'll choose from just a handful. Individuals seeking representation from a specialist can start their search online, as most law firms mention specializations on their websites.
"You know, having been through the whole specialist certification deal, I just think that's the most important thing," Scurfield said.
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