Sep 11, 2014

Attorney Fees Down 19% In Last Four Years

     I have written that attorneys and others representing Social Security disability claimants are under considerable economic stress. It's a simple matter to demonstrate what's happening. Social Security posts the totals on fees paid. These numbers are available through August of this year. Let's compare the total fees paid to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants for this year and each of the preceding four years through August of each year:
  • 2010 $977 million
  • 2011 $941 million, a reduction of $36 million or 4% from 2010
  • 2012 $935 million, a reduction of $6 million or 1% from 2011; a reduction of $42 million or 4% from 2010
  • 2013 $876 million, a reduction of $59 million or 6% from 2013; a reduction of $101 million or 10% from 2010
  • 2014 $792 million, a reduction of $84 million or 10% from 2013, a reduction of $185 million or 19% from 2010
     If there had been essentially no change in representation, these numbers should have gone up modestly due to inflation. Instead, they went down by 19% over five years, with most of that change happening in the last two years.
     What happened? There's been a generalized slowdown in processing disability claims at Social Security. It just takes longer to get a case through every stage of the process. Naive people might think that slower processing would mean higher fees but the reality is that it just means lower total fees as the cases pile up at every level. Even more important, it has become more difficult to get a favorable decision from an Administrative Law Judge. That's had the direct effect of reducing the fees paid because fewer claimants are winning. It's had the secondary effect of changing the standards used by attorneys and others in selecting cases. Because a fee is paid only if the claimants wins, everyone tries to avoid cases they regard as unlikely to succeed. The "unlikely to succeed" category has gotten considerably larger over the last five years. More prospective clients are turned away. It's also had the effect of reducing the advertising that attorneys and others do seeking Social Security clients. Many people who were advertising in the past just can't afford it now. Even if they do advertise, the advertising is less effective because more prospective clients are turned away because of increased selectivity. This means that advertising has a lower yield, making it less cost effective. Less advertising means that fewer claimants learn that they can try to hire an attorney. "Try" is the right word here since it's clear at ground level that there are many claimants desperately seeking an Social Security attorney and not finding one willing to take on their case.
     If you're not in the business of representing Social Security claimants, your reaction to this is probably, "Who cares? That's your problem, not mine." However, Social Security has offloaded a considerable part of its workload to those who represent Social Security claimants. We have to do a lot of the filing of appeals, gathering of medical evidence and advising claimants. The agency is in no position to pick up that workload.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

"However, Social Security has offloaded a considerable part of its workload to those who represent Social Security claimants. We have to do a lot of the filing of appeals, gathering of medical evidence and advising claimants." Offloaded its workload??? What do you expect you should have to do for your fee, nothing???

Anonymous said...

"Social Security has offloaded a considerable part of its workload to those who represent Social Security claimants. We have to do a lot of the filing of appeals, gathering of medical evidence and advising claimants. The agency is in no position to pick up that workload"

really??? claimant's reps really are the laziest of all attorneys in the field.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure SSA employees, websites, phone messages, etc.--all interactions a claimant will have with the agency--tell all claimants repeatedly that they can and should get a representative.

I'd really like to know if the numbers are detailed enough to ascertain what percentage of the drop is due to the increased backlog, the decreased pay rate, and other reasons. I think that matters a lot.

Anonymous said...

To the author of the first 2 comments: CTH isn't saying the reps shouldn't do these things, only that they do, and that takes workload away from SSA. Not sure how this means all reps are lazy...

Anonymous said...

Representative should work for their fee, agreed. By the same token, SSA field office employees should start working for their compensation as well. They, too, are drawing a check from the government, it is a pay check and should have to be earned. It is not an entitlement check.

Anonymous said...

Much of the medical evidence gathering is done by SSA staff. There are some representatives who do the work of actually requesting records, but quite often the representative just tells SSA which sources to contact, because the claimant cannot afford to pay for records.

Anonymous said...

The fee cap should be eliminated, many reps work their tails off for peanuts and also lose tens of thousands of dollars per year in uncollected costs reimbursements.

Anonymous said...

Poor babies:(

Anonymous said...

@ 5:48

Can you please explain how you "lose" money? Everything that a rep spends is an investment in a potential payout. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But like any business, you have costs that must be borne to carry the business forward.

Anonymous said...

Better call Saul!

Anonymous said...

Geez - doesn't the law and the regulations say the claimant (and therefore hired representative) is responsible for submitting evidence to support their disability claim? SSA and the states have taken part of that over to get what is needed - rather than all kinds of irrelevant stuff.......

for many reps - they tend not to get objective medical evidence - but opinions unsupported by medical evidence.

SSA should get out of the business of paying representatives......and the reps should live the real world of doing such work.

Anonymous said...

When SSA employees do work that can and should be done by representatives who will be paid for their work and reimbursed for their expenses, other claimants in the queue wait longer. Then the reps complain about the slowness of the process. It's not like SSA employees get the morning off when a rep is obtaining the records for his client instead of them. They just move on to the next case, which might be involve an unrepresented claimant where SSA employees rightfully have to obtain the records.

And let's not forget where the representative's fee comes from - not the government, but the claimant's back benefits. The payout stays the same, it's just a matter of whether the attorney gets more of it or the indigent claimant does. The financial plight of attorneys is not a battle versus the government, it's a plea for more of the pie at the expense of their own clients.



Anonymous said...

I am truly surprised to read that SSA employees get records when reps are lazy. When a claimant files a claim, Disability Determination Section (DDS) usually will obtain a few records for only the last year. In most cases, the development of medical severity must be documented over 2-3 years to have a complete record to have a chance of winning. My office is usually hired at reconsideration or requesting hearing levels. We almost always find an incomplete record and often pay a few hundred dollars per case to obtain all needed records. [We get reimbursed by claimants in only about 1/3 of the winning cases]. The ODARs at which I practice do NOT obtain records. Total time for myself and my staff over the 2-3 years of representation usually averages about 25-30 hours (I write briefs for all my hearings and have an extensive pre-hearing interview with all clients). If you've never represented a real human being, you don't know about the hand-holding that's necessary as well as doing a complete job of getting their medical/work histories to accurately complete the volume of paperwork.

By the way, let me educate SSA workers on one fact of received fees. If you work your client's cases, you do NOT get more by delaying the case (as local field office workers keep telling claimants when encouraging them to NOT hire an attorney). several years ago, I did a careful study of our cases, and the result was that whether we won a case at an early stage of the case or whether we had to take the case to a hearing, the hourly rate received was almost exactly the same. I'd rather win a case early to maintain a steady cashflow.

Anonymous said...

I have worked for 2 of the largest SSDisability firms. Both, at 1 time or another, have cried finances at 1 time or another (e.g. slow processing payments). Now that I am a supervising manager, I never really buy these arguments.

It's a simple case of supply and demand. The firm supplies enough attorneys, case managers, office staff, etc. to meet the expected revenue from repping clients. Law seems to be fairly cheap for things like supplies. You may need paper, toner, office furniture, and advertising/marketing. But there are not a lot of moving parts such as a warehouse or construction site.

Soooo I feel for those solo practitioners if they have not learned about other laws. I have made it a point to learn about other law just in case I have to fall back on this.

Anonymous said...

Feel sorry for a lawyer who takes their skim from those generally from the poorer and disadvantaged segment of society? Considering the general levels of skill and "expertise" to make their case before and ALJ, these lawyers are overpaid.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why we keep having this debate. Everyone hates lawyers and that includes government bureaucrats. Whether you are an industrious and honest lawyer or a lazy crook, you are lumped in with every other licensed attorney. Yes, I know the old joke "99% of lawyers give the rest a bad name."

So, lawyers, stop taking the bait. Whether you are honest Abe or crooked Cathy makes no difference. You're a lawyer and you're all alike. If you wanted to be loved, you should have become a government bureaucrat.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that few have taken the claimant's perspective in the debate. Are claimants with legitimate claims that need help proving them better, or worse off with representation? Obviously, they are better off if they find competent representation. That being the case, SSA policies should encourage competent representation.

Currently, no reasonable person would argue that SSA resources for being thorough in gathering evidence and adjudicating claims are stretched thin. Given that the burden of proof is on the claimant at all steps but step 5, underdevelopment of claims will tend to result more often in denial of legitimate claims, than it would in approval of undeserving claims.

The question is should we care that legitimate claims are being denied because they are not being fully developed? If yes, then again, competent representation should be encouraged so that the claims are fully developed. Incompetent Reps can and should be discouraged in a manner that does not provide a disincentive for competent representation.

Anonymous said...

Most SS reps are lazy bums. Nothing new here!!!!

Anonymous said...

"Currently, no reasonable person would argue that SSA resources for being thorough in gathering evidence and adjudicating claims are stretched thin."

You have no idea what you are talking about. Please come sit in my ODAR office, or any ODAR office, with an ALJ and an SCT for a week and see if you're still singing the same tune.

Anonymous said...

I recently had a case that was repped pro bono by an attorney from a top 100 law firm. The level of detail in his extensive brief was precisely the type of representation that is sorely lacking from most reps. Not only did he highlight the parts of the file which supported his case, he actually provided anaylsis of the weak spots/contradicting evidence which honestly never happens from most reps. He also made sure the case was fully developed with all of the medical records from all treating sources. If more paid reps provided this level of representation, the system would be vastly improved

Anonymous said...

That rep from a top 100 law firm assuredly had an intern, paralegal, or other subordinate review the case and prepare the brief. A top 100 firm brings in millions of dollars on matters other than social security. They have the resources to devote to these pet pro bono projects. Those that have worked in private practice understand this. A reduction in social security fees would have no effect on such a top 100 law firm.

Anonymous said...

@ 10:53

Even better--so law students or first-year associates or administrative staff people are eating the lunches of all these supposed SSA disability law experts in the brief writing department. Wonderful!

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Seth Ashford said...

Thanks for sharing this! I had no idea that attorneys' fees are down so much! I think it shows just how hard it is to get your social security benefits without one, especially if attorneys are turning away potential clients. It's really good that they aren't just taking clients to get money. I think that is much worse than not having clients! http://www.ballferraripc.com/Personal_Injury_Claims_Yonkers_NY.html