One of the biggest concerns, when claimants feel they need help with their claim, is how to go about hiring or firing a Social Security attorney.
Hiring an Attorney
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Hiring an attorney is usually the next step when a claimant receives a denial on their claim. Appealing is obviously important too.
But when a claimant receives a denial, they feel they need an attorney to fight for them. Someone to “hold their hand” throughout the claim.
This is a decision that should not be taken lightly as this is the claimant’s future. One misstep and it all can fall apart.
Of course, you hear stories about claimants winning without an attorney and that’s fine. But the majority of the cases do require someone who knows how to navigate the intricacies of the claim such as completing forms properly.
Others will not understand how to prepare for a hearing. Or what goes on during the hearing where most claimants feel lost and anxious about.
To understand the hearing process a bit better, please read my post about Preparing for a Hearing. I also have another post about How to Argue your Case and How to Cross-Examine the Vocational Expert.
Once you read these posts, you will see why there is a good reason for hiring an attorney.
There are also situations where you see that no attorney wants your case despite your wish to hire someone.
Please read my post about Why Attorneys are Rejecting Your Case to learn what to do to fix that.
How to go about Hiring an Attorney if You Don’t Have a Recommendation?
There are several ways to go about hiring an attorney when you don’t have a recommendation:
- Online Search: Online searches are one way to start. This should be used in conjunction with any other lists you may get a hold of later. Even if a friend recommends someone, you still need to research the attorney’s website and the reviews from previous clients.
- Nosscr.org is another way to find attorneys in your area. This is the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (Nosscr.org). They have a national list of attorneys who are members of this organization. Note that the list includes only members of this group. If you don’t find an attorney who practices in your area, you may still be able to find one by searching an online “Yellow pages” or a Google search.
- A list provided by your local Social Security office. If you go to your local Social Security office, they may have a list of attorneys practicing in the area.
- Lawyers.com and Martindale Hubble are two other sites where attorneys are listed and will often have recommendations by other attorneys too. Just Google those names and list the type of attorney and your state or zip code. Don’t forget to do a search for reviews. And finally,
- The State Bar in your area. Simply find the website for the state you live in and type the city and practice and you should be able to find someone. Even if it is in the next county over. It is still better than someone in another state.
What Should the Online Reviews Say Before Hiring an Attorney?
Nowadays online reviews are everything.
One bad review and an online score can go down quite a bit. Sometimes it is not even the fault of the attorney: There are trolls everywhere!
I can tell you one story of a “potential client” not even a client, who just dropped off 10 pages of records in our office and did not leave a phone number or any other method of contact.
A name search revealed thousands of people with the same name. So finding that person by name was out. We could not reach that person, period.
So we hoped that the person would call soon to ask if there was a case. The person finally called: 3 months later(!) and was upset that we never called.
We explained why we could not reach the person but that was not enough. We told that person that we could not tell if there was a case since it was only 10 pages. We asked for more records and we would gladly review the claim again. There was no pleasing that person.
Months later we found a 1-star review on our online presence. The person posted that said he/she won the case and was going on and on about how we never called that person, etc etc.
From 5 stars given to us by all our happy clients, this person’s one star (who was never our client) brought our reviews to 4.3. While this was still a good score, a misinformed person would probably go elsewhere because of that one star.
We are the type of attorneys who always return calls within no more than one day even if we are traveling overseas! But one person can really hurt an attorney’s review.
Why am I telling you this story?
Because I really want you to read those reviews before hiring an attorney. Read the good and the bad.
If you see a pattern of things like “great attorney but hard to reach“: that’s a problem.
If you see things like “the attorney fought for me and guided me throughout my claim” that’s what you want for your claim.
The Thing About Hiring an Attorney from National Firms
I’m not a fan of bashing attorneys for no reason but this is an important thing that claimants should be aware of when looking for an attorney.
This is particularly important when you are looking for representation but you have a limited number of attorneys in your area: National firms.
Claimants with difficult access to an attorney should still try to find an attorney at least located in the same state before hiring an attorney with a national firm.
Here are a few things you should know about national firms and why I never recommend them:
- As the name already says, they are national (aka Big): meaning, not local or close to you. If you have a question or need to drive to their office, you won’t be able to.
- National firms deal with volumes of cases. That’s how they are able to make their money. And they need to make money to pay for all the advertising they need to attract clients.
- Attorneys working in these national firms are most likely new attorneys who are just starting to learn the practice and are overwhelmed with the number of files on their desks. They simply can’t get to all of them.
- Because of attorneys being overwhelmed with cases, they tend to quit. That’s why you see clients complaining that they never spoke with the same attorney twice.
- Most of your claim will be handled by a paralegal. While there are great paralegals out there, they too get overwhelmed since they do most of the work.
- You risk having paralegals representing you at your hearing instead of an attorney! Do you really want that when you waited so long to get your day in court?
But wait, there’s more!
7. Some of these national firms also work with insurance companies and it is not clear who the real client is (LTD claims)
8. If you have a quick question or something that requires attention or just some “hand-holding” you will rarely get that from a national firm. They just don’t have time for you.
9. They take most cases that come in the door. What if your case is not that great and you need additional advice on your file to improve your claim? You likely will not get that from a national firm. Why? There is not enough time. They simply get as many records as they can and show up at the hearing.
10. You may meet your attorney at the hearing. Now this one is pretty common even in local firms. The reason is, most claimants are too disabled to drive to an attorney’s office. So most attorneys will accommodate their clients and will do everything by phone, mail, email, and fax. I do that very often.
But there is a very important difference here: a local attorney is more likely to talk to you when you need to ask questions. You may just get a general customer service person on the phone if you are represented by a national firm.
What Should I Look for When Hiring an Attorney?
The most important thing when looking for an attorney is finding someone who will listen to you.
You want an attorney who will take the time to talk to you and explain the process. You also want an attorney who will return your calls and answer your questions.
This is the most common complaints from claimants: “My attorney won’t return my calls!”.
So how do you find an attorney who will listen to you?
First impressions are everything. If you scheduled an appointment to meet with an attorney in person, you want to be sure to watch how the attorney handles the interview.
Does he ask questions?
Does he let you ask questions?
Is he one to just talk and talk and never listen?
You should also look for a good personality. You don’t need a clown or a jokester. You also don’t need an attorney who is so stiff you see talcum powder coming out of their wig!
You need to find someone who is the right balance for your own personality.
Do you like someone who tells it like it is? Or do you prefer someone who likes to “sugar coat” everything?
Do you like fast-paced? Or do you prefer an attorney who will explain everything 200 times if necessary?
The Best Attorney
Some of the items I mentioned above are important when looking for an attorney. But the only person who can say if you are happy with your choice of an attorney is you.
Personality, competence, years in practice are very good examples of things to look for too.
Now one final thing to know when selecting an attorney.
A lot of claimants meet with attorneys and want to know their success rate.
This question is a little bit odd for most Social Security attorneys.
Not one case is alike and while the attorney can generally say that they have some success, it depends on so many factors that there is no simple answer to that question.
Firing an Attorney
Firing an attorney most commonly happens when a claimant hired an attorney who has done nothing to help. Or they simply want to try someone new.
Even when an attorney does everything right, personalities may not always connect. Sometimes a feeling of uncertainty can ruin the attorney-client relationship even though no one’s at fault.
If you decide to fire your attorney the first thing you need to consider is why?
I want to fire my attorney because I got denied on my first try
If you are firing an attorney just because you received a denial, this may not be a good reason.
You may have heard that some claims will be denied at the first or second try despite any efforts by an attorney.
Some cases require that a judge makes an assessment of disability no matter what.
I have told clients that they would lose and we would need to go to a hearing. It had nothing to do with my competence. Those cases just required a hearing. That’s it.
That’s what an attorney’s job is: to tell the clients what to expect from the process.
I often get calls from people trying to fire their attorney just because of an early denial. That’s not a good idea:
First, the attorney is still in the early stages of the process and your case may be one of those that requires a hearing. To blame the attorney for that denial is counterproductive.
Second, your attorney will have a lien (financial interest) in your case for the work done. If you fire that attorney, you may owe fees to him/her.
Third, if you fire your current attorney, you may not get another attorney simply because they will have to split fees with the old attorney.
Remember my post about Why attorneys are rejecting your case mentioned above?
You are then left without an attorney because no one wants to “touch” your case.
The timing of the Firing
You also need to consider the timing when deciding to fire your attorney. If you are firing your attorney at the early stages it may be a bit easier to find another attorney and even get the old attorney to release their lien on your claim.
If you decide to fire your attorney a few months before your hearing, it may be more complicated.
You may also end up without an attorney because of the lien and all the work the previous attorney did.
Finally, you may see the new attorney request additional time and even have to reschedule your hearing to work on your case. This may cause more delays and months of waiting for a new hearing.
Do you really want to delay your claim even more?
Tricky Times in the Process to Hire an Attorney
We talked about the issues when hiring an attorney before a hearing. But there are two other times when hiring an attorney becomes extra difficult:
At the Appeals Council level (after getting a denial by the judge). And if you are taking your claim to the Federal Court (after receiving a denial at the Appeals Council level).
In these two situations, the main issue is the fact that the claimant cannot introduce new evidence to the file. There are some exceptions but most cases will have that limitation.
So if the first attorney (or the unrepresented claimant) did not do a good job gathering evidence for the hearing, most attorneys will be hesitant to take a case they can’t fix because it’s too late to add new supporting evidence.
In those cases, the attorney will simply have to work with the evidence in the file. The attorney will also have to hope that there is enough to support a reversal of the decision or a remand back to the first judge.
It is not uncommon for claimants to hear attorneys telling them they are better off filing a new claim.
Of course, that mostly works for those who still have credits left over (SSDI). Otherwise, they may only qualify for SSI which may pay a lot less and it has strict financial requirements to qualify.
How to Properly go about Firing an Attorney
The first thing you want to do is to communicate with the attorney the reasons for your decision.
If by any chance there is a way to salvage the relationship, this may be a good opportunity for both to clear out any misunderstandings that may have hurt the relationship.
I have had situations where the client wanted to fire me because instead of believing me and my assessment of the case, they chose to believe a Social Security agent.
That agent gave them wrong advice that would actually hurt their claim. Yet the claimant chose to believe the agent. Including gems like “you don’t need an attorney in this case“, only for the claim to be denied as soon as they followed the agent’s advice.
There are so many stories…
I usually sit down and explain everything before being hired and during the representation that unless the agent is an attorney, they simply don’t know strategy, legal terms and even how to handle a claim.
Just because they work for Social Security they don’t know everything.
I can tell by experience that even former ALJ’s don’t know how to work on a claim unless they were disability attorneys before becoming Social Security judges!
The second thing you must do once you decide to fire your attorney is to request that they write a letter “releasing their lien on the claim”.
Not all attorneys will agree to do that. This can really complicate things.
Like I explained above, some attorneys may not want your case because there is a potential of having to split fees with another attorney. So getting the “lien release” letter is very important if you want a chance at getting another attorney.
Once you have that letter and you found a new attorney, then you can start fresh with someone else.
Finally, the next step when deciding to fire your attorney is to ask for a copy of the entire “paper” or electronic file so you can show it to the new attorney.
I hope this post helps you or a loved one to make the right decision when looking to hire or fire an attorney.
Until next time,