How To Find a Social Security Disability Attorney and The Questions You Should Ask Before Hiring A Lawyer
1. Is the representative a Board Certified Social Security Disability Attorney? Board certification is provided by the National Board of Legal Specialty, accredited by the American Bar Association. There are only six Board Certified Social Security Disability Attorneys in the state of Florida. Certified attorneys must undergo a thorough screening of their credentials, including: documentation of their experience in handling Social Security disability claims, references from Administrative Law Judges and other attorneys, and an exam.
The attorney must demonstrate “substantial involvement” in Social Security disability law by having spent at least 30% of his time in Social Security disability during each of the three years prior to applying to become a board-certified Social Security Disability lawyer. The attorney must also show substantial involvement by having been involved in at least 100 Social Security Disability hearings, having filed at least 20 appeals council briefs, having filed at least 10 federal court briefs and fulfilled certain educational and continuing legal education requirements.
2. Is the representative even a lawyer? Let me be clear. You do not have to be an attorney to represent disability applicants. “Non-attorney” representatives are able to represent claimants before the Social Security Administration. However, you have the right to have a lawyer, or attorney, represent you in your claim. Lawyers may be more familiar with the cases decided in court, in addition to Social Security’s rules and regulations.
3. How many cases has the attorney personally handled in the past five years? The answer to this question should not include the number of cases where the attorney has only “supervised” the case. You should ask the number of claims where the attorney was listed as the attorney on Social Security’s Appointment of Representative. Some attorneys advertise that they have over 20 years experience, but they have not personally handled more than a couple Social Security disability cases in the past five years.
4. How many court hearings has the attorney handled before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) in the past five years? The Pensacola area is covered by the Mobile, Alabama Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. There are currently thirteen Judges out of the Mobile office:
ALJ Tracy Guice
ALJ Renee Hagler
ALJ Warren Hammond Jr.
ALJ Linda Helm
ALJ Marni McCaghren
ALJ Kim McClain-Leazure
ALJ Alan Michel
ALJ David Murchison
ALJ Thomas Muth II
ALJ Roger Nelson
ALJ Katie Pierce
ALJ Ben Sheely
ALJ D. B. Stalley
Of these judges, nine or ten have been appointed within the past five years. This is why it is important for you to know how many hearings your attorney has had before each of the above-named judges.
5. Is the attorney in the advertisement you responded to the attorney who will be assigned to your case? Oftentimes a disability claimant will respond to an advertisement, whether it be a television commercial or ad in the yellow pages, and he or she will not be assigned to the attorney profiled in the advertisement. Instead, the disability claimant’s case will be assigned to a younger associate attorney in the firm. You should ask whether you will be meeting the senior attorney in the firm, or a younger associate attorney.
6. When will you meet your attorney in person for the first time? I meet my clients in person from the first appointment with my office, to the pre-hearing conference, to the hearing with the Judge. I cannot tell you the number of times I hear a claimant met his or her attorney for the very first time at the hearing on the case!
I believe the attorney handling the claim should do the intake because important information should be thoroughly investigated by the attorney from the beginning of representation, and certain strategies should be mapped out from the very beginning of being hired as the attorney. The initial intake should not take place over the phone, over the mail, or be conducted by a paralegal. The attorney handling your claim should do so from the very beginning.
7. How much continuing legal education specifically related to disability law does the attorney get each year? Many attorneys who focus their law practice on Social Security disability cases are members of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (“NOSSCR”) and attend at least one or more seminars sponsored by NOSSCR each year.
8. Is the representative a member of NOSSCR? As stated above, NOSSCR is at the forefront of legal education for Social Security and SSI claimants’ representatives. It assists attorneys in providing the highest quality representation for their clients. NOSSCR publishes a monthly newsletter, the Social Security Forum, to keep attorneys current on developments at the Social Security Administration, in the federal courts, in legal practice, and in federal legislation. NOSSCR sponsors two three-day national continuing legal education conferences each year. It provides a research library for attorneys, including briefs, case citations, memoranda of law, questionnaires, and the like. NOSSCR assists attorneys with complex research problems, and alerts practitioners to developments in related areas of legal practice. In short, NOSSCR helps attorneys keep advised of the constant developments in disability law.
9. Has your attorney ever assisted a claimant in filing a Social Security disability application online?
10. Has your attorney ever personally filed a disability appeal online at Social Security’s website?
11. Will your representative help you complete all the forms that you must file to pursue your claim? If the representative tells you to “call back after you’ve applied for benefits and been denied” or “come back after you’ve been denied a second time” or “come back when a hearing is scheduled,” then the attorney may not be interested in fully developing the claim as early as possible in the claim.
12. Will your representative get your file in advance of the hearing and go over the evidence before the hearing date? Going to the hearing and reviewing the file for the first time just 30 minutes before the hearing may not be sufficient for you to win your claim.
13. On a related note, does your attorney have eFolder access with Social Security? The eFolder Hearing Office Status Report provides appointed representatives with the ability to access and download real-time information related to their client’s claims, only at the hearing office level. Appointed Representatives requesting access to the eFolder must have cases pending at the Hearing or Appeals Council levels.
14. Will your representative prepare a written statement about the evidence and use that to try and persuade the judge before the hearing to find you disabled “on the record” without the need to conduct the hearing? Or will your representative prepare a written brief before the hearing summarizing the theory of the claim and highlighting the positives in your case? These are signs of an attorney who puts out additional effort for your case.
15. Will your representative meet with you several days or weeks before the hearing to discuss what you should expect at the hearing? If not, you may not be sufficiently prepared to testify at the hearing.
16. Will your representative take your appeal all the way to federal court? If not, why not? If the representative is not licensed to do this, will you be given a referral to someone who is capable of handling such an appeal at such a high level of appeal?
17. How does your representative receive most of the cases that he/she handles? If it is by the referral of other clients, then that is a sign that he or she has done a good job for many people in the community in the past.
18. Have you handled cases featuring my particular health problems before? Social Security lawyers are not doctors. But the truth is most experienced Social Security Disability lawyers will be familiar with your condition … or willing to learn about it.
Disabling conditions that I have experience handling includes (but is not limited to):
Social Security Disability Conditions
Cancer (all types)
Chronic back pain
Congestive Heart Failure
Degenerative Disk disease
Degenerative Nerve disease
Failed back surgery
Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Sickle Cell Anemia