Most applicants for Social Security Disability (SSD) and SSI have to go through three steps of the disability process to get approved for benefits.
First you go to your local Social Security office or schedule a phone appointment to apply. This is called the Initial Application. You fill out all sorts of paperwork and start the waiting game. Your file goes to an agency run by your state (usually called DDS or DDB, which stands for Disability Determination Services or Disability Determination Bureau). There, a claims examiner looks at your file and makes a determination. If your file doesn't contain the medical evidence needed to approve you for benefits, your claim will be denied and you are given the option to appeal.
The first appeal in most states is called Reconsideration. At Reconsideration, another claims examiner at DDS with a little more experience looks at your file and almost always makes the same decision as the first examiner. The Reconsideration process usually takes about the same amount of time as your initial application -- unless you have new evidence that helps your case. Assuming you are again denied, you now have the option to request a hearing in front of a Social Security judge, called an ALJ, which stands for administrative law judge.
The wait for a hearing is long. In most states the wait is at least a year, and in some places the wait is over two years.
It is at the hearing that your lawyer is most likely to get you approved for benefits, for many reasons. Because many people know that the hearing is when a lawyer can help the most, they wait until the hearing is coming up to hire an attorney. This is not the best way to do it.
Hiring a lawyer early helps in many ways. If you talk to a lawyer before filing, he or she can tell you what medical evidence Social Security wants to see for your medical condition, so you can make sure it's in your file from the get-go. If you can get approved on the basis of your initial application, you'll save yourself months or even years of anxiously awaiting a decision.
Hiring a lawyer early can also save you money on attorney's fees. Your lawyer will charge the same regardless of when you hire him, which is 25% of your back benefits, up to a limit of $6,000. But if you get approved at the application stage or at the Reconsideration stage because of help from your lawyer, you'll have fewer back benefits, and the lawyer will get less of your money.
Hiring an attorney early also gives the lawyer time to read you medical records thoroughly and spot new issues. It allows your attorney the time to convince your doctors to help and to ask your doctor for the right tests and a helpful statement of your limitations. Your lawyer might even be able to speed up the process, depending on your situation. Finally, it helps your lawyer have time to craft a theory of why you are disabled and prepare for the hearing, if your case gets that far.