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.