The Administrative Law Judge Hearing
Your hearing is your first opportunity to speak directly to a person who has the power to grant your benefits. You are no longer limited to writing about yourself on forms and questionnaires.
A typical hearing lasts 45 minutes, and consists of two parts. First is your testimony about how your conditions affect your ability to perform work-related tasks and your ability to take care of your own personal needs. Second is the testimony of the vocational expert hired by Social Security to respond to questions by the judge (and your attorney) regarding your past work and what jobs you may still be capable of performing. Occasionally a judge will tell a person that they are going to grant benefits, but it is more common for the decision writing process to take one to six months.
Your testimony is taken under oath, and the judge will ask you questions about your prior work, and how your symptoms have limited your ability to work. The judge is allowed to ask questions about anything found in your claim file, including prior or current substance abuse and any past legal problems. Responses to questions about prior legal problems or substance abuse will help a judge decide whether you are being truthful with them.
Your attorney is also allowed to ask you questions. Being thoroughly prepared to testify is of the utmost importance.
What is a Vocational Expert?
The Vocational Expert is hired by Social Security to respond to questions from the judge and your attorney regarding what jobs a hypothetical person with your educational and work history is capable of performing. The person is usually an established vocational rehabilitation counselor, and testimony is provided via telephone. The Vocational Expert is only provided by Social Security with the work information in your file, not your medical records.
What else is required?
You are responsible for providing the court with updated medical records. If you have hired an attorney, providing the medical evidence is your attorney’s job. All documents must be submitted to the court 5 working days prior to your hearing. If you are unable to do so, the court must be notified in writing of late arriving evidence, including the names of the medical facilities or doctors. Social Security’s obligation to request medical records on your behalf ends when you receive your denial of benefits prior to requesting a hearing.
You will also need to show a current picture identification to the court’s security guard upon entering the court office.
My hearing is next month (or week?) Is it too late to get an attorney?
Although it may be too late for an attorney to take your case and prepare for a hearing that is so soon, most of the judges will allow one (and usually, only one) hearing postponement for you to find an attorney.
How do I pay for an attorney?
Social Security requires attorneys to work on a contingency fee basis. That means your attorney can only be paid if your case is successful. You don’t owe your attorney any money if you do not win your claim, unless you have agreed in your contract for services to reimburse reasonable costs such as paying for medical records, etc. No charges, such as retainers, are allowed by Social Security in order for an attorney to start working on your behalf.
Local vs. nationwide representation
There is a huge difference between hiring a local firm and a nationwide firm. As you’ve read in other parts of this website, Mr. Shaw personally prepares his clients for their hearings with as many one-on-one preparations appointments as necessary to give them a clear understanding of what will happen at the hearing, and what kind of style the Administrative Law Judge uses as they conduct a hearing, as well as suggestions about how to effectively describe their symptoms and limitations.
Nationwide firms contract with attorneys (who usually do not have a successful practice of their own) and pay them a small fee to meet their clients 15 to 30 minutes prior to their hearing and appear at the hearing. Unlike a local attorney, they get paid whether you win or lose. Do you think they really care whether you win or lose?
Attorney vs. non-attorney advocate
Although a person does not have to be an attorney to represent a person’s Social Security claim, by hiring an attorney you have certain protections against improper conduct that you do not have by being represented by a non-attorney advocate. Attorneys are licensed by state bar associations and are subject to suspension or disbarment if their conduct merits punishment.
Another consideration is whether a non-attorney is as knowledgeable about making court appearances as someone who has graduated from law school and passed their state bar examination.