Should I hire a Social Security disability advocate or a Social Security disability lawyer?

Question: I’m about to apply for Social Security disability. I’ve seen an ad for disability advocates. What’s the difference between a disability advocate and a disability lawyer? Which should I hire?

Answer: The term Social Security disability advocate is used by both lawyers and nonlawyers who help people with their disability cases. However, many, if not most, individuals who advertise their services as “disability advocates” are not lawyers. Social Security is one of the few areas of law where it’s legal for someone to help and represent you at hearings without a license to practice law (thanks to a law passed in 2004 to reduce the backlog of Social Security disability cases).

Nonlawyer disability advocates must have a college degree or equivalent training, but they don’t need to go to law school or have any legal training. They do need to pass a Social Security exam on disability procedures and pass a criminal background check.

Disability lawyers, on the other hand, have graduated from three years of law school and passed the bar exam. They’ve learned to write legal briefs, question plaintiffs and witnesses at hearings, and properly read prior cases to support your claim.

Another difference: nonlawyer disability advocates aren’t subject to any rules of professional conduct requiring them to return phone calls promptly, charge you a fair amount for expenses, and keep you notified about your case. Disability lawyers, on the other hand, are, and are subject to discipline if they violate these ethical rules.

Also, only a licensed lawyer can appeal your Social Security disability claim to federal court, should you lose your appeal with Social Security.

You’d think that disability lawyers would be able to charge more for their services, but they can’t. Both nonlawyer and lawyer advocates are limited to the same percentage of your disability award (25%) and are paid only if they win. (Read more about how disability lawyers charge you here.)

Either way, if you have a hearing coming up, your chances of getting approved for benefits are higher if you’re represented by a lawyer or nonlawyer advocate. Nolo has a directory of disability advocates who can help you with your case; fill out a case evaluation form to have one of them contact you.