A commenter recently wrote:
BEWARE! Attorneys will stretch out the claim filing because the longer it takes, the more money they get.
As I wrote in Can You Pick Your Lawyer Out of a Line-Up, lawyers should work for their money. So, if you are not getting value from your representative, maybe you should change who you are working with. However, it is something of a myth that lawyers can speed up or slow down Social Security cases. Of course, a lot of this perpetrated by legal advertising. You have probably seen more than one ad touting “Faster Results!”
Let’s look at this issue.
What are lawyers’ promises of “Faster Results” really about?
In most medium-sized markets, there are often a dozen lawyers, big and small, competing for your business. In a large market, there could be scores of attorneys competing with each other. Nowadays, you can also add large national companies trying to scoop up as many cases as possible (like a blue whale trawling for plankton). The competition isn’t for winning your case; it’s for getting hired! While the lawyer/company won’t get paid unless the case is won, they don’t even get a chance to win the case unless you pick them! So, they want as many cases signed up as possible!
However, since Social Security determines the fees lawyers can charge, you don’t see competition on price. Instead, you get the promise of “Whiter Whites!” which, in legal, circles translates to “Faster Results!” or “99% Success Rate” or “150 Years Combined Experience.” I have written about the last two previously, so let’s consider the faster results pitch.
It is certainly a compelling offer! Who doesn’t want a chance of getting their case done faster?
However, are you about to sign on with a better firm, or are you just getting flimflammed?
- If a representative promises faster results, the results are faster than what? Faster than the national average? That might only mean that they work in one of 25 states that process cases faster than the other 25. That may not be saying much.
- If a representative claims “most of our cases are approved without a hearing!” To my jaded ears, that sounds like they selectively pick cases which are likely to be approved anyway and brief them. Explaining why a case should be approved certainly helps the claimant and counts as work. However, sticking with easy cases is like never getting beyond tic-tak-toe, it doesn’t build legal muscles. Do you get a discount because your case is easy? Probably not.
If you still feel compelled to contact a law firm, or non-lawyer representative company, promising fast results, remember to ask these four questions:
- You promise faster results. Faster than what?
- Do you guarantee a decision within a certain number of months?
- Do you guarantee a decision without a hearing?
- What if you don’t deliver? Do you cut your fees? By how much?
Do lawyers slow down Social Security cases to make more money?
Now, let’s consider the flip side of this. Can, and more importantly, do lawyers slow down cases.
It is true that since lawyers get a percentage of the back benefits, the longer a case takes, the more a lawyer may make in fees — at least, up to the fee cap set by Social Security.
I switched lawyers after waiting a year and got my hearing in a month! My old lawyer must have held my case back!
Some cases just happen that way: a long wait with lawyer 1, then a relatively rapid hearing with lawyer 2. However, consider that in every jurisdiction, there is an average wait time to get a disability hearing. In Colorado, it is about 16 months after the filing of the appeal. Put another way, about 16 months after appealing, you can expect a hearing to be scheduled. Sometimes people get tired of their first lawyer “getting nothing done” and fire them. They switch to a new lawyer who gets a hearing in 2 months!
Wow, that lawyer must be amazing!
Well, not really. It only means it takes 16 months to get a hearing in that jurisdiction. You waited 14 months with the first lawyer and the last two months with the second. There is a lot of coincidence masquerading as results.
Note: there a lot a lawyer can do for you: obtain evidence, analysis the case, file briefs, and prepare you for your hearing. However, one thing a lawyer cannot do for you is to make Social Security move faster than it wants to. No one can force Social Security to make a decision before it is ready. The reason Social Security cases take so long is that there an enormous backlog of cases waiting to get through the system.
When you hire a representative, you are hiring someone to stand in line with you and help get you ready while you wait to get to the front. However, they cannot make the line move faster. If you change the person you’re waiting with just before you get to the front, it’s not the change that caused you to get to the front of the line. It is that your turn finally came up! The problem is that you don’t see the line in a Social Security case. You don’t know how many people are in front of you. All you know is that you waited a year with the old attorney and only a couple of months with the new one.
What can you do about this? Ask your representative how long cases take in your jurisdiction. Even if you can’t see the line of people ahead of you, you will have an idea of how long it should take to get to the front of the line.
Well, I know someone who filed at the same time and used a different lawyer and their case already had a hearing. So, why am I still waiting with you?
Yup, that can happen. In addition to an average time to get a hearing scheduled. There is also a range. Again referring to Colorado: while the average time for a hearing is about 16 months, it may be a short as six months to as long as 18 months for the hearing to be scheduled. Also, some cases are expedited due to dire need or because the claimant is a soldier. And some cases get sent out-of-state to be worked up by other hearing offices or by a national hearing center. Then, there are differences in the Social Security staff handling cases, and in the number of openings on the judges’ dockets. Any of these can speed up or slow down how long it takes to get a hearing. The result is some cases move faster than others. Although, lawyers certainly do not mind taking the credit when a case is resolved faster.
You still haven’t answered if lawyers slow down cases!
Ok. No, lawyers do not try to slow down cases. There are lawyers who may not do very much – which is bad enough! However, just as lawyers cannot really speed up a case, lawyers cannot slow down a case either. That power rests completely with Social Security. The one exception is if a lawyer has to request a continuance for a scheduled hearing. However, that is not likely to happen without you knowing about it and the reasons for the delay.
So, what do you think? Are lawyers slowing down Social Security cases?
Image provided by Public Domain Archive.