Non-attorney representatives are limited in their capabilities to advocate for disabled clients when handling SSDI claims. Although non-lawyer disability advocates can assist clients with documentation and claims forms and they can help with appeals at the administrative law judge level, they cannot appeal denied disability claims to federal court. Additionally, non-attorney representatives are not bound by the same ethical and professional standards as attorneys. Therefore, their clients do not have the same protections as attorney-represented clients. Despite the differences, the fees for representation set by the Social Security Administration are the same for disability lawyers and non-attorneys.
Non-Attorney vs. Attorney Representation
Non-attorney representatives often assist clients with document preparation during the SSA disability application process and with administrative appeals. However, Social Security Disability is a sophisticated area of law that is governed by federal codes and case law that interprets those codes. Adequate representation entails cross-examining medical and vocational experts, advising on the law, and advocating for clients at every level including federal court. Only a licensed disability attorney can do that.
Finally, non-attorneys provide limited services without a reduction in the fee charged to clients. Non-attorneys and attorneys are both required to collect their fees on contingency (they are paid only if they win), and their fees are 25% of the back benefits recovered, capped at $6,000.
Federal Court Representation
If an SSDI claim is denied at the administrative law judge level, appealing to the federal courts is the last step. While licensed attorneys can represent their clients before the federal court, non-licensed disability advocates cannot file those appeals.
Attorney Professional and Ethical Obligations
Attorneys are also held to a higher ethical and professional standard. Attorneys are officers of the court, which obligates them to extensive ethical rules (including confidentiality, professionalism, and candor). Attorneys also extend to their clients’ attorney-client privilege and other protections regarding the communications and work generated from their service.
These obligations make attorneys accountable to their clients. Attorneys are required to represent their clients competently. Failure to do so could result in discipline by the courts or the state bar. Furthermore, attorneys are required to maintain malpractice insurance policies that provide their clients with an avenue to recover damages if the attorney mishandles their case.
Non-attorneys are not bound by any of these obligations. Therefore, if a non-attorney mishandles a case, there are fewer opportunities for clients to recover for their losses.