Do I need to hire a lawyer or attorney to handle my Social Security Disability or SSI claim?

Applicants and claimants for Social Security disability claims often ask me whether they “really” need an attorney to represent them through the application and approval process for benefits. I would never state that you need to hire an attorney because a claimant may go through the entire appeals process without an attorney or other representative. That being said, I’d like to provide you with some statistics as to the relative success rates of those who go unrepresented before the Social Security Administration.

These statistics are taken from the following article: Russell Engler, Connecting Self-Representation to Civil Gideon: What Existing Data Reveal About When Counsel is Most Needed, 37 FORDHAM URB. L. J.37 (2010).

Engler cites at least three studies which reported higher success rates for represented claimants than unrepresented claimants. As set forth in greater detail below, Herbert Kritzer reported success rates approximately 15-30% higher for represented claimants, the Maryland Action Plan reported a 24% gap in success rates, and William Popkin reported a 23% gap in success rates. Engler, a law school professor, concludes that these studies “provide consistent data confirming that represented claimants fare far better than unrepresented ones in their social security disability appeals.” (Engler at 59) (emphasis added).

Engler first cites the work of Herbert M. Kritzer, who studied data from the state of Wisconsin from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s and wrote an article entitled LEGAL ADVOCACY: LAWYERS AND NONLAWYERS AT WORK 111-20 (1998). (Engler, p. 59, n. 90). Kritzer found that claimants represented by an attorney were successful in 60-70% of their appeals, while unrepresented claimants were successful in 30-55% of their appeals. Because the higher rates in each category typically occurred in the same year, the gap in the represented/unrepresented success rate ranged from 15% to 30% each year. (Engler at 59, n. 90, citing Kritzer at 117 chart). “Kritzer also reported data regarding the success rates for claimants appearing with nonattorney representatives. For each year reported, claimants represented by nonattorneys fared far better than unrepresented ones, but slightly poorer than those represented by attorneys.” (Engler at 59, n. 90).

Engler further notes that Kritzer reported on another study from the 1970s, the Boyd Report, which found that appellants represented by attorneys were successful in 78.4% of the cases, appellants represented by nonlawyer advocates or nonattorney representatives were successful in 51.5% of cases, while unrepresented appellants succeeded in only 28.3% of the cases. (Engler at 59 and 59 n.93).

Engler further cites to a publication by the Advisory Council of the Maryland Legal Services Corp. entitled “Action Plan for Legal Services to Maryland’s Poor” (Jan. 1988) (unpublished report, on file with the University of Baltimore Law Library) [hereinafter “Maryland Action Plan”]. The Maryland Action Plan discusses data from the 1980s and reported a success rate of 60% for represented claimants, and only 36% for unrepresented ones. (Engler at 59, n. 91).

Finally, Engler cites a third study by William D. Popkin entitled “The Effect of Representation in Nonadversary Proceedings—A Study of Three Disability Programs”, 62 CORNELL L. REV. 989, 1024 tbl.1A (1977) (discussing data from the 1970s). (Engler at 59, n. 92). Popkin’s data from the 1970s showed a success rate of 71% for represented claimants and only 48% for unrepresented ones. Id.