How Do I Find A Good Lawyer?

Sometimes it startles me how casually someone selects an attorney, and for what random reasons. Be careful! Here’s how I suggest you do it:

If you live in the Carolinas, I would hope that the quality of this site would recommend me to you as one lawyer to consider. Click here if you want to talk to me. But if you have doubts, or live in Vermont, or even on the Eastern Shore of North Carolina, which is pretty far from the judges before whom I appear regularly, keep reading. If you live around me, ask some of the folks named below about me.

Here’s the best way I have been able to think of to get a lawyer:

  • First, get your list of possible names: I have arranged these sources in order of personal preference. Try every way, and if the same few names keep turning up, good and bad, you are at the beginning of a wise choice.
  • Contact a support group for your particular medical condition. These groups often maintain referral lists. This is probably my favorite suggestion. The members of the group can compare their experiences with different attorneys, and the group as a whole gradually figures out who does the best job.
  • Ask people who are active in helping the disabled in your community. Depending on where you live, this could be public social workers, church workers or pastors active in social work, doctors, nurses, hospital social workers, union representatives, NAACP representatives, or United Way workers. Some of these people are free to recommend someone, and some others are not; volunteers are usually free to speak their mind.
  • Ask a few attorneys who don’t handle Social Security cases. You know they won’t recommend themselves, and often they will have a pretty good idea of who the best attorneys are.
  • The Yellow Pages in the nearest large city are a good place to look. Only consider attorneys who put Social Security Disability first in the ad. A medium to smaller ad suggests an attorney who is so good that he gets most of his business from word of mouth advertising—that is probably the best lawyer in the area; or someone who is so poor they cannot afford a larger ad—that is bad. A visit to the office should sort out the one from the other. There are exceptions, but a very large ad suggests an attorney who must beg people to come in, who cannot get any repeat business, and who is spending all his money on advertising rather than staff—that is bad. Be aware that anyone can buy a yellow page advertisement.
  • Legal Aid might be the only lawyers available if your claim does not involve money, or if it involves a small amount of back time, or SSI, or a child’s claim. That is not necessarily bad; I just mean that your choice is limited; the particular lawyer might be excellent, or not. Legal Aid’s resources are limited, and they have to limit the cases they can take. Legal Aid usually has a list of lawyers that are willing to handle Social Security cases, and the legal aid offices in my area won’t put anybody really bad on the list.
  • Ask someone who has gone through the process before. If that person gives a bad review, there well may be something to it. But a favorable review means less. The person knows a lot about one lawyer, but little about the others. Certainly ask the person about the factors set out above.
  • I don’t like referral services, which include the bar association. They have to give you the next lawyer on the list, which makes the recommendation semi-random, and generally anyone can ask to be on the list. Maybe call 12 times and work through the group you get, though I suppose they don’t want you to do it that way. Your local Social Security office probably has a list of referral services.
  • TV advertising suggests an attorney who must beg people to come in, presumably because those who came in before are not happy, and suggests someone who is spending money on ads instead of your case. Again there are exceptions.
  • I suppose the web, but I would distinguish between sites like David Traver’s if you live in Milwaulkee, or Peter Young’s if you live in California, which help you get to know that lawyer, from referral sites that are rated high on the web only because they pay searchengines to put them high up. If there is no helpful content on the site, all the site tells you is that the named lawyer has to pay to get people to come into his office. Some sites are just glorified random referral services.

What to consider when selecting between lawyers:

Now that you have a list of possible lawyers, you need to make a final selection. I have these suggestions. These are general rules, almost all of which have exceptions, except I guess the first two:

  • Be careful.
  • Talk to several lawyers before hiring one.
  • Ask questions, and look around the office. Does it seem like a well run machine, or are people wandering around looking lost? Are people pleasant to you and to each other? Are they working hard, or chatting?
  • Experience is important. I would want a lawyer with at least, say, 5 year’s experience as a Social Security lawyer.
  • The lawyer should emphasize Social Security. I would want a lawyer whose practice was 70% or more Social Security law.
  • Be sure you can get your lawyer by the throat. Be sure you can get the lawyer on the phone if you need to, in a couple of days if there is no emergency, and right away if there is. But if you think about it you will decide you want a lawyer who is busy. If there were two restaurants side by side, would you want to eat at the one with lots of cars in the parking lot, or the one with the empty lot?
  • Talk to the staff. Ask who besides the lawyer will be helping you. Meet that person, and size that person up. Make sure that the lawyer you are talking to is the one with the experience, and the one who will handle your case.
  • Choose a lawyer who appears regularly before the judges in your area. The lawyer should be experienced at handling cases in front of the judges in your area. There is no way that an attorney from three states away can know just what might set Judge Fredrick off, and what you need to do to win your case depends as much on what is going on in Judge Fredrick’s brain as it does on what the law is, or what he is supposed to do. “In your area” means “in area served by the Office of Hearings and Appeals that will hear your case.” To find the location of the Office of Hearings and Appeals that would handle your case, click here, or call 1-800-772-1213. In case you are wondering, I handle cases frequently in the Greenville and Columbia, SC offices and the Charlotte, NC office. Together they cover Western North Carolina and the Upstate and the Midlands of South Carolina. I handle a modest number of cases in the Greensboro, NC office, generally for claimants who live between Charlotte and Greeensboro. If you are denied at the hearing level, I will handle the claim anywhere in North or South Carolina, because at the Appeals Council you get an anonymous analyst, and at the District Court level you get a handful of judges statewide.
  • It is usually better to hire an attorney and firm that primarily handles Social Security Disability. Attorneys who name several practice areas in their ad, including Social Security Disability second or last, cannot be great experts in disability. It is possible to have a larger firm in which one or two attorneys become very good in this area, but sometimes in such firms the Social Security department is in effect subsidized by the other attorneys. If disability is most of what the firm does, the attorneys need to be good at it or will go out of business.
  • Be sure the firm handles appeals beyond the hearing, that is, to the Appeals Council and to the Federal District Court. Any serious Social Security lawyer does this. If the judge knows that your lawyer will not appeal his decision, he or she is free to ignore the law.
  • Don’t worry about being able to pay for a lawyer, at first, anyway. In most Social Security cases, you can hire an attorney for a percentage of what you get at the end of the case. This is not always true, but often enough so you can assume it is until it is proved untrue. In some areas of the country, some or all attorneys will not take children’s cases, or SSI cases, in this way; in other areas some or most lawyers will.

Should you use a disability corporation instead of a lawyer?

Being a lawyer, I am biased here, so take this with a grain of salt: A good disability rep from one of those big companies might be better than an attorney that does not handle Social Security Disability. But an experienced lawyer is usually better, for these reasons:

  • Most disability companies deal long distance. The employee that they send for your hearing cannot know what matters to the judge that will hear your case. Law as applied is about half what is written down, and half the personality of the judge before whom you appear. So the company representative only knows half the law.
  • Many disability companies do not have lawyers, who are essential to handle appeals to the Federal Court, if that becomes necessary.
  • Lawyers are regulated by their state bar association, and must have extensive legal traing, while a disability company can hire anybody off the street.
  • Disability Companies are often beholden to your long term disability carrier. Disability companies might be advertised by your long term disability carrier as being “free,” but actually, the long term disability carrier pays them. So, if they turn up a doctor’s report indicating that you are not disabled, what will they do with it? I don’t know, but follow the money. And, if you are drawing long term disability, the long term disability carrier must reduce its recovery by any attorney’s fee, so there is no financial advantage to hiring a disability company: in effect the LTD company is forced to pay your attorney’s fee in most cases.