Jul 28, 2015

Hard To Make A Living Representing Social Security Claimants

     Crain's Detroit, a business newspaper, is running an article on the business of representing Social Security claimants. I can say from personal experience that it's a difficult business to be in. The article notes this. The firms that the newspaper talked with had all decreased the number of attorneys doing Social Security work. Apparently, hearing backlogs in the Detroit area are far, far lower than they are where I'm practicing.


Anonymous said...

My practice is located in the Metro Detroit area. Backlogs in the three ODARs in the area are steadily growing: 12-15 months now and increasing. I'm not sure where this article got its information. Competition has decreased, which means that the established firms are still signing up clients. I don't think this article is an accurate assessment of SSD practice in Metro Detroit.

Anonymous said...

Even by cherry picking the best cases, you still walk into ODAR with a 50/50 chance. If the average winning case is paying out 3k, and you lose half, that average is too low to justify the overall results unless you have huge efficiencies that allow you to take a ton of cases. Or you just don't care to work a case up. That is the hard part - overwork a great case and still get a bumbling unfavorable decision. Show up with barely any work in the case and win (or lose), at least you are not out much time.

This practice is dying. Reps know it even though they refuse to admit it them selves. ALJs know it. SSA wants it.

Anonymous said...

Agree w/ anon 12:35. Here in California, the win rate is around 47 percent. So if you win more than 50/50 then you are doing well. Have heard it is harder to get paid on cases even when there is a win.

There will always be a need for SSD/SSI attorneys. The pool of claimants is just going down. The main reason is the baby boomers are now aging over 65 so the spike in the 2000s is not there. But there will always be a need if not a smaller need.

Anonymous said...

The overall pay rate is nearly 50 percent at ODAR. There are lots of (presumably poorly represented with below average outcome) unrepped claimant's and bad reps with no selectivity. I'm not being facetious--are you (presumably better) reps really not performing significantly better than the average? Are you that desperate for clients that you just have to take all comers? I just always thought a decent rep/firm would have a success rate at least 5-10% higher than the overall average...

Anonymous said...

I've noticed in our area a couple of the TV firms have started to let go associates. These are the "take anything" firms that just try to play the percentages and figure volume would win out in the end. My favorite was still the 24 year old with a fracture to his non-dominant extremity who hadn't been to the doctor since they took the cast off 2 years before his hearing. The more those types of firms can be pushed out because the money isn't there the better off the system is.

Anonymous said...

5:19: we calculate that about 2/3 of all our clients will eventually obtain favorable decisions. But this includes all levels of appeal, not just ODAR hearings. We're a regional firm, so we don't get overly harmed by one "bad" local hearing office. There are 9 different ODARs in which we will likely be having hearings in any given week, so the odds generally even out. With careful screening, aggressive marketing, and utilizing all efficiencies, an SSD practice can still be profitable.

I can sympathize with attorneys who can't maintain a practice where most of their hearings are in one tough ODAR. We have abandoned areas where it was just too difficult get awards and the costs to maintain a practice in that area could not be offset by the available fees.

Anonymous said...

All it takes is a few "20 percenter" ALJs in an ODAR to make contingent fee practice impossible. Those of us who are sole practitioners cannot use the mass efficiencies of scale that larger firms use to cut overhead--unless we don't work the cases diligently.

Throughout my 26+ years of practice, I gradually shifted from a general litigation practice to a 90% concentration on SSDI/SSI cases for at least 15 years. Of the cases which went to ALJ hearings (or received OTRs), my win rate was 90% +/- 5% in any year. As I recall, the ODARs in our area averaged about 70-75% approval rates for most years. However, in 2013, the new "Astrue judges," who had never represented a real person but had worked within the bowels of SSA since law school got turned loose, and my win rate was suddenly only 66.6% with the local ODAR approving about 49%. Because of the changing atmosphere at this ODAR where I do 95+% of my practice, I tightened the criteria for taking cases. So, in 2014, my win rate increased to 75%, which sounds good, but cash flow actually got worse.

This is because I practice in a semi-rural area where the large industrial employers outsourced their manufacturing, so our clients have been unable to maintain steady employment in this blighted area. It is a Southern low-wage area anyway, so the amounts our clients paid in FICA when they were working was lower than what employees in more prosperous areas have paid, meaning our disabled clients' PIA and Family Maximum are low even in the best of times.

Now the ultimate kick in the groin for my practice is that 75-80% of the "winning" cases in this ODAR result from the ALJs aggressively forcing the indigent claimants to amend the date of onset so there will be only 1/2 to 1 year of back benefits, if that. In one recent case, after a trip to the Appeals Council for a remand and doing a second hearing, my fee came to $700. My destitute client would have agreed to anything to get some benefits. I have "won" some cases in which there were NO back benefits. I have wanted to resist the forced amending of onset dates, but after my clients have waited 2 1/2 to 3 years for a hearing, they are exhausted, and approximately 50% of my clients who once owned their homes, have lost them due to foreclosures. It's my understanding that the AC grants remands in only about 14% of cases, so there' not much relief there, and until just recently, the USDC has upheld 98-99% of ALJ denials. Ethically speaking, the case is the client's, so in desperation, the clients always tearfully take the bone the ALJ throws them.

I have heard that the local ODAR is now down to 35% approvals. There is also absolutely no consistency in decision-making. After over 26 years of doing SSDI/SSI, I cannot even guess which cases will be approved. I am telling clients that a bigger factor for a successful claim than their medical records is which ALJ is assigned to their case.

Anonymous said...


I have to agree on the consistency in decision making problem. I am more than satisfied with ALJs who understand the basic medical information and follow agency rules. There are plenty of fine ALJs who do that well. With such Judges we can do a much better job of assessing likely outcomes after developing a record.

Then there are ALJs who impose their own personal litmus tests instead of the agency rules. Often when I have a clearly disabled person getting denied that is at the root of it. Ask any perceptive regular practitioner at a local ODAR and they can usually tell you which Judges have their own personal extra-legal criteria, and what those criteria are. That shouldn't be happening, but there it is.

In some places that is why the ALJ you draw is more important than actual evidence of disability. If your client happens to fail a particular ALJ's extra-legal litmus test despite strong evidence of disability then they must brace for a denial and lengthy appeals. Usually ALJs with low approval rates are employing such criteria.