Jan 10, 2017

Attorney Fees Hold Steady

     Social Security has posted its final numbers on fees paid to attorneys and others for representing Social Security claimants in 2016. The total was $1.093 billion, down only slightly from $1.094 billion in 2015. Fees are down $336 million, or 23%, from the peak in 2010.
     All attorneys who practice Social Security law face considerable economic pressure. The attorney fee provisions of the Social Security Act were designed to allow claimants to have representation. This right could be effectively eliminated over coming years unless something changes. One important way that the Acting Commissioner of Social Security could assure that claimants don't lose their right to representation is to increase the cap on Social Security attorney fees. It's currently $6,000. The Social Security Act allows the Acting Commissioner to raise this to adjust for inflation but does not require that she do so. If adjusted for inflation, the cap would now be over $7,000. It's past time to raise the cap.
     Every time I write about attorney fees, I get the response from some Social Security employees that attorneys who represent claimants are lazy, that they do nothing for the money they're paid. Those who would post this need to ask themselves the question "If representing Social Security claimants is such easy money, why don't I leave my job with the agency and jump on this gravy train?" After all, who goes to law school with the intention of never representing a real live client? Get out there and show the world how it should be done!
     Social Security employs thousands of attorneys but hardly a one of them has left Social Security to represent Social Security claimants in recent years. What does that tell you?
     And by the way, when I post about attorney fees I usually get responses from some Administrative Law Judges that go something like "When I was in private practice, I spent hundreds of hours doing depositions and meeting with my client and other witnesses in each individual case. Social Security attorneys don't do anything like that so they're worthless." Those who post this tend to forget that they or their firms were being paid tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars a case. You try spending hundreds of hours on each Social Security case when the total possible fee is no more than $6,000 and see how long you last. The challenge in representing Social Security claimants is doing a professional job when economics require you to represent lots of clients. Give it a try and find out for yourself just how easy that is.


Anonymous said...

With respect to your comments about SSA reps not being lazy, or doing nothing to earn their fee - I think if the SSA employees you reference are on one side of the spectrum then you are on the other side. I represented claimant for years before signing on with the Agency. I know that it is hard work and it can be a grind. But, if you treat it like a volume business, you can get away with doing very little and still win a fair number of cases. Often times, the records speak for themselves. Unfortunately, there are a fair number of claimants reps that adhere to this philosophy, do the bare minimum, and ruin the reputation of the whole group. This is just my opinion.

Anonymous said...


The vast majority of those reps went bankrupt in 2016.

Anonymous said...

Practice in a different area if you have skills. If you are basing the majority of your practice on SSDI any time after you saw ALL the big boys bail out you are foolish and deserve failure.

Anonymous said...

I graduated with Honors from a top ranked law school where I was on the law review.
I had offers from large firms. I think the task of helping vulnerable, ill educated people obtain benefits they desperately need is appropriate to the education and upbringing I was fortunate to have, and the challenge of running a profitable business in the process is exciting. I am proud to be a SS disability lawyer.

Anonymous said...

@11:05, Bravo!

Anonymous said...

why dont poeple need a lawyer to get food stamps?....hell ssdi is only $600 dollers more then food stamps...

Tim said...

We wouldn't, if DDS actually did their Job! But, they deny, deny, deny in what their union calls "claimant services." The system is DESIGNED to drag the process out, with judges and Lawyers "needed."

Anonymous said...

It appears the "judges" agree with DDS quite often. Maybe they aren't all disabled, just because they applied.

Anonymous said...

@11:05 AMEN!

@12:12 stated, "Why dont poeple need a lawyer to get food stamps?....hell ssdi is only $600 dollers more then food stamps..."

Actually, people do need to retain attorneys in many states to qualify for food stamps. My state has an elaborate adversarial hearings process to obtain food stamps. Basically, the state has a rule that if a food stamp applicant has access to $2500 in income or resources, they are not eligible for food stamps. There are some minor variations in the amount of money one has access to if there are dependent children or other dependent adults in the home. The people at the Initial level simply scan for the amount of available income or resources an applicant has, and if they spot that $2500+/-, you're are denied. Period.

Yes, there is actually statutory and case law which indicates they (the state) must look at where the money the applicant has access to comes from, as certain sources are exempt. Typically, the state does not do this as they should at the Initial level, or even at the hearing, or subsequent levels of appeal. For example, an applicant who recently lost a job may have a credit card, and obtained a cash advance which approximates $2500 which they intend to pay monthly bills with, etc. Even though the cash advance from their credit card is supposed to be considered exempt and considered the same as a loan, I have observed cases go through four and five levels of appeal on this very issue and still be denied.

Food stamp law is actually more complex than many of you may realize. There is an entire body of statutory and case law in my state which exempts certain sources of income and resources. Getting those who work for the state DHS to abide by these laws is another thing entirely. Despite making valid arguments, you would not believe the denial decisions received in return, which do not even address the issues made on behalf of the applicant! This is a red state with a Republican dominated legislature. From what I have observed, it appears the Republicans have similarly pressured DHS employees in decision making positions to deny, deny, deny, much like Congress has done with SSA Disability, and SSI especially. Applicants with dependent children who qualify for other state welfare benefits tend to fair a little better, but not much.

If you are a single adult who recently lost a job in my state and apply for food stamps, you are in for quite a shock. Recently, I ran across a case here where a single, elderly adult on a very low fixed income only qualifies for $12.00 a month in food stamps. Seriously. Plus, she had to go through several appeals just to get that $12.00 a month. Some of you who erroneously think welfare benefits, such as food stamps, are easy for anyone to obtain, need to think again. If those days ever did exist, they are long since gone. I think you would be really shocked if you look at how difficult these benefits are to obtain in many states today, especially the red states.

Anonymous said...


More often than not they disagree with DDS, either finding their reasoning invalid (yet still ultimately concluding the claimant is not disabled) or, significantly more frequently, finding the claimant disabled.

Additionally, your reasoning suggests it is of equal value of a disabled individual to receive the benefits they paid for versus a non-disabled individual receiving the benefits they paid for. I disagree.

Anonymous said...

I'm an attorney and I have opposed raising the fee cap for two reasons: First, it does not appear to me that claimants are having problems obtaining representation with the current cap. With the wait times being what they are, the average fee per case has increased. At least, that is the experience at our firm.

Secondly, I think a fee increase helps the national and large regional firms. They will just factor in the higher cap on their spreadsheets and it will allow them to prosper at the expense of local practitioners. I would live with the cap going down to $4000 if it would bankrupt more of the large disability rep mills.

Anonymous said...


Assuming an average PIA of $1300, and assuming a claimant alleged an onset of six months prior to applying for disability, even assuming the case is resolved within 13 months you are at the fee cap (19*1300/4=$6175). These figures are estimates, and we obviously try to resolve a case at the initial or reconsideration stages. Oddly enough, our success at reconsideration in recent months has gone up significantly. My point is, in the average case which requires actually going to a hearing, you are likely to hit the cap in any SSDI case. SSI is another matter, or where a claimant's PIA is exceptionally low, however the cap clearly is low. Although representatives with any experience are familiar with this issue, and likely have built their business models with this in mind, it stifles new representatives from entering the field.

Your second point...that's pretty devastating. You are correct. My only concern is if the mills are preparing and filing fee petitions as a matter of course. I'm not familiar with their internal procedures, but it would not surprise me if they are requesting fees above the cap in any circumstances where they could make the argument.

Anonymous said...

@ 9:13 AM (yesterday)

Foolish and deserve failure? I think not, a good attorney who knows this area well is doing just fine, if not better than ever. It is not terribly sad that the rep mill businesses are struggling. Cherry picking decent cases, making your clients do all the prep, and meeting a client at the hearing office by a contract rep, and dropping a client without even meeting them are poor quality ways to operate. They deserve their failures. SSA could have been on this issue long ago, but the know it helps them keep approvals low. But for those of us who have that old fashioned approach where we take a case at any level from initial to USDC, meet in person with a client from day one, get all the evidence into the judge and actually know the case continue to make money. Certainly the lower percentage of approvals and longer wait times have impacted cashflow. I am a solo practitioner and had a some of flat (no growth) income years 2013-2015. But even so, take home income still high and more that any ALJ would make. 2016 was stellar with a 35% increase in SS fee income. Getting rid of the bad reps makes profit for me...no fool here!

Anonymous said...

"I graduated with Honors from a top ranked law school where I was on the law review.
I had offers from large firms. I think the task of helping vulnerable, ill educated people obtain benefits they desperately need is appropriate to the education and upbringing I was fortunate to have, and the challenge of running a profitable business in the process is exciting. I am proud to be a SS disability lawyer.

11:05 AM, January"

Beautifully said. I wish more attorneys had this attitude. I also wish your comment was not anonymous.

Anonymous said...

I doubt employees have that attitude towards most attorneys, especially if from a smaller firm. About the only disparaging remark I have heard (and probably shouldn't have) is towards the firms handling everything by mail with the claimant without a call. Especially Citizens Disability. #1 complaint from them is the beneficiary never heard from them, had to complete all the forms themselves and mail them in to our office.

Don't heard much else complaint wise about smaller firms.

Anonymous said...

We frequently deal with a small law firm that is great. If you need evidence, they are on it right away and you have it within a day or two, if not the same day. Large national firms are not worth calling in my experience as they don't respond much better to us than they probably think we respond to them. If I see a hearing is approved and there is workmen's comp or public disability insurance involved, I check to see if we have the proof. If not, I call the local attorney so that the evidence will be in file. The attorney gets paid much quicker if this is done. I have tried it with the super big attorneys and have not received much help at all. Either way, I can still process the claim but if we have the evidence, the attorney and claimant will be paid timely and the right amount.

Anonymous said...

Point your anger appropriately. The bulk of SSA employees complaining about do nothing reps are not law school grads. They are high school grads hoping to one day become a group supervisor or paralegal "cause they know as much as the lawyers and can do their work just as well".

Talk to ALJ's and most can discern the difference between the rep who thinks they are a bounty hunter who need only show up with a signed appointment and fee agreement and make some easy money and the reps who bust it, keep the file updated and don't waste time making silly arguments (ie. the rep who argued his client earning $24,000 a year and still employed should receive benefits for meeting a listing).