When a person becomes disabled and is unable to work, they may qualify for disability benefits, a program operated by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Filing for disability benefits is a complicated process, and it is not uncommon for an application to be denied. An experienced disability lawyer can help people throughout the entire process, from the initial filing to appealing a denied claim. Keep reading to learn more about disability lawyers.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) defines disability as a person with a physical or mental impairment that limits at least one major life activity, a person with a history of impairment, or a person that is perceived by others as having an impairment. When a person suffers from disabilities and cannot work, disability benefits can help ease the financial burden.
There are different types of benefits available, depending on the applicant’s circumstances. The most common two types are:
1. Social Security Disability Benefits (SSD) – SSD allows disabled individuals to receive their Social Security retirement benefits early. The benefits are available to people who have paid in Social Security though their earnings. The worker must have a certain amount of work credits to quality and this varies depending on their age.
Another stipulation for qualifying for SSI is providing medical evidence showing that the claimant will be disabled for at least one year. SSD recipients are also eligible for Medicare benefits after 2 years from the date they became disabled.
2. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – SSI is a need-based program aimed at helping disabled people who have limited income and resources. To qualify, the applicant must not exceed certain income guidelines. There are other resources available for SSI recipients such as food stamps.
Short-Term and Long-Term Disability
Short-term disability provides coverage for a limited time after a 14-day waiting period. The individual receives benefits for a length of time depending on their policy, and this can range from several months to 1-year. Short-term disability also has a maximum coverage amount. Conditions that may qualify a person for short-term disability include:
- Birth of a child
- Disabling injury
- Lengthy illness
Long-term disability on the other hand, covers injuries and illnesses that prevent a person from working for greater lengths of time. These claims can take up to 90 days to approve and generally, the individual can receive benefits until they are 65. Some policies insure people for the rest of their life. Conditions that may qualify a person for long-term disability include:
- Cardiovascular disorders
- Severe Injuries
- Mental illnesses
- Musculoskeletal disorders
Filing for disability benefits can be a long, overwhelming process. The first step requires submitting an application along with medical evidence supporting the claim. This stage in the process can last up to 120 days, and only around 30% of claims will be approved.
If benefits are denied, the individual has 60 days to file an appeal with the SSA by requesting reconsideration. The application is then sent back to the SSA where it is reviewed once more. This can take up to 5 months and less than 15% of appeals are approved at this stage.
If denied at the first appeal, the individual has 60 days to request a hearing with the SSA. This hearing involves having an administrative law judge review the claim. The judge can either approve the claim, deny it, or send it back for review. It can take up to 2 years to complete this process, but around 63% are approved.
If the judge denies the claim, the applicant can appeal the decision with the Appeals Council, but less than 2% of cases are won during this process. If denied by the Appeals Council, an individual can ask the Federal District Court to review the case. Around 30% are approved by the Federal District Court.
A qualified disability lawyer can assist people wishing to apply for disability by ensuring the paperwork is filled out completely and correctly. The attorney will also help the applicant understand the process and gather medical evidence to support the claim. If the initial claim is denied, the lawyer will carefully review the case to determine the reason for denial.
If denied, the disability lawyer will complete the paperwork needed to file an appeal. He or she will also attend hearings and present evidence supporting the claim.
Professional Requirements to Become a Disability Lawyer
Becoming a disability lawyer takes hard work and dedication. The first step in the process is obtaining a bachelor’s degree through an undergraduate program. There is no single field of study required for pre-law students, though many major in political science, business, or English. After graduating with your bachelor’s degree, you must take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), which is used by law schools to help screen applicants.
After taking the LSAT, you must attend law school to receive your Juris Doctorate degree (J.D.). Law school is a three-year program and for the first year, you will study general aspects of the law. The following two years will be spent concentrating on disability laws. After receiving your J.D. degree, you will have to take the bar exam in the state where you will practice. To work as a disability lawyer in more than one state, you must take the bar exam in each of those states.
Additional Education and Experience
After graduating law school, you can choose to work towards your Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree. This program is internationally recognized and it lets you take a closer look at disability laws.
Additional Licensing Requirements
Additional licensing requirements vary by state, but in general, practicing disability lawyers must take part in continuous education courses every 1 to 3 years. These courses help keep attorneys up-to-date with the laws and case precedent. The requirements are set by the state’s bar association.
Where Can You Work as a Disability Lawyer
Disability lawyers work in private practices, law firms, or as solo practitioners. Since the fee charged by disability attorneys is limited, lawyers who take on more cases tend to receiver higher salaries. Those employed by larger firms are also prone to have a large income.
Disability lawyers spend most of their time working in an office setting. However, they do attend court hearings and meet with clients outside the office on occasion.
How do Disability Lawyers Get Paid
Unlike attorneys that charge up-front fees, disability lawyers work on a contingency fee basis, meaning they are only paid if you win your case. For Social Security Disability, federal law limits the fees paid to attorneys to 25% of past-due benefits awarded to the recipient, with a $6,000 maximum. If the recipient does not receive any past-due benefits, the lawyer is not compensated. If an attorney appeals a case to the Appeals Council or federal court, he or she can submit a fee petition asking to charge more than the 25% limit.
In addition to the disability lawyer’s fee, an individual may be required to pay for costs associated with requesting medical, work, and other types of records. If the disability lawyer requests upfront payment for these added costs, it must be placed into a trust until it is used.
It is important to discuss the fees and learn what is included in the costs before signing a contract. You will asked to sign a fee agreement, which is submitted to the SSA for approval. If approved, this agreement allows the SSA to pay your disability lawyer directly.
Disability Lawyer Salary
For attorneys, the median wage as of 2018 is $119,250 annually ($57.33/hr), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”) Occupational Outlook Handbook. The BLS does not distinguish between fields of practice however, so this accounts for all lawyers.
Typically, disability lawyers with experience or those working for large firms tend to fall at the higher end of the salary spectrum. Some may make upwards of $150,000 per year or more.
Employment Outlook for Disability Lawyers
Between 2016 and 2016, the employment rate for disability lawyers is expected to grow at a rate of 8%. This is the rate for all U.S. occupations. As more students graduate law school than jobs become available, the competition for attorney jobs is predicted to continue increasing.
Hiring a Disability Lawyer
An attorney is not required to file for disability benefits, though having representation greatly increases the chance of your claim being approved. When hiring a disability lawyer, it is important to choose one that is professional and courteous. The lawyer or a member of their staff should keep in contact with you while working on your case, and return your calls in a timely manner. One of the more common complaints about disability lawyers is that they do not keep clients updated, or even return phone calls.
When you find a disability lawyer that seems like a good fit, set up a consultation, which is often offered free of charge. This initial meeting gives you the chance to explain your case and learn more about the attorney’s experience, expertise, and fees. They should also give you an honest assessment of your case after learning the facts. Often times, it is best to meet with more than one lawyer before making a selection.
How to Find the Right Disability Lawyer
Once you have decided that hiring a disability lawyer is in your best interest, it is important to choose the right one. While this may seem like an overwhelming task, knowing where to start makes it easier. The best way to begin your search is to ask family and friends if they know of a disability attorney they would recommend. You can also ask lawyers in another area of practice to point you in the right direction.
Another option is to use an attorney database that provides comprehensive profiles for attorneys. Some of the databases allow you to search by type of lawyer making it simple to find someone local. The American Bar Association website can also help you find a list of licensed attorneys in your state.
|Degree Level||Juris Doctor (J.D.), Master of Laws (LL.M.) in law is optional|
|License/Certification||Licensure in state of practice|
|Key Skills||Time management, oral discussion, attention to detail, effective communication, multitasking|
|Number of Jobs (2016)||792,500|
|8% growth rate (average growth rate)|
|Median Salary (2017)||$119,250*|
|On the Job Training||Moderate term of on-the-job training|
|Top Earners||Top earners in the bankruptcy field are generally employed by large family law firms|
(*Source: the BLS)