How Much Do Lawyers Matter, Really? The Effectiveness of Representation at Disability Benefits Hearings

By: Steven Hendryx, Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

This semester in the HeLP Clinic, my partners and I have had the privilege to work on a disability benefits case that proceeded to a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ).  Representing a client at an ALJ hearing feels like a chance to do some “real lawyering,” so we were all extremely excited to be working on this case.  We spent the semester poring over medical records, sending out requests, conducting interviews, and of course, drafting the brief.  This case was on my mind all semester, as it dominated the work that we did in the clinic.  But throughout the process, I kept wondering to myself—do these clients really need us?

Several times throughout the semester, I found myself wondering if providing representation was the most efficient way for us to assist disability claimants.  I felt like a lot of this process could be solved by self-help remedies, thereby broadening our scope and helping more people at once.  Maybe if we just held classes a couple times per year teaching people how to file their applications and appeal denials themselves, we would be more efficient.  As a result of these thoughts, I decided to do some research to see if we as (soon-to-be) lawyers are truly worth our salt.

While I was unable to find any peer-reviewed study or research on the topic, I did make several interesting discoveries.  According to one law firm’s research, the effect of having attorney representation at any point during the disability benefit process (application to ALJ hearing) nearly tripled the success rate of claimants.  This blew me away—just having someone like me work on your case makes it three times more likely that you’ll succeed?  But, once I sat back to consider the sorts of things that lawyers are able to do just by the nature of their position in society, this disparity in success rates made more sense to me.

When we request records from a hospital or school on behalf of our clients, not only do we know the proper channels to go through to do so, but people listen to us.  Just the “threat” of legal representation speeds things up for our clients, and people are much more willing to work with your demands thanks to that J.D. next to your name.

Additionally, we have the benefit of understanding how to peruse the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) rules and regulations, and how to use facts from the medical records to show that SSA’s criteria are met.  These are tools that are at our disposal that our clients likely aren’t even aware of.

The results of my research surprised me.  I knew that the work that we were doing was important, but I had no idea how effective we could truly be when representing our clients.  I still believe that the populace as a whole would be well served by someone doing some self-help sessions with interested people, because sadly we are not able to represent everyone who may need assistance.  However, I gained a new perspective about what it means to represent someone, and how powerful that ability truly is.