I often get calls asking about whether someone should to use an attorney or an advocate. My short answer is “there is no difference.” Attorneys and Advocates both represent claimants the same way and have the same authority. One major difference is that most Advocates have not gone to law school. Many, like myself, have been Paralegals for many years. I have been a Paralegal for 38 years and 24 years as an Advocate.
When I graduated from Paralegal school I decided that I wanted to find a non-traditional way to apply my legal skills. Eventually I found that opportunity by becoming a non-attorney disability representative.
I advocate for our claimants at all levels including the hearing level of the appeals process and the Appeals Council. For a non-attorney representative, you should use a SSA-accredited advocate to represent claimants at a hearing.
I had to have several years of hands-on work experience as an initial-level Advocate before taking the test for my accreditation. Though I already met the education requirements for accreditation, I gained a real strong knowledge of the Social Security system by actually developing cases.
To get my accreditation I had to take a written test administered by the Social Security Administration. The test is very technical. You have to study for it and be very comfortable with SSA’s Code of Federal Regulations. Questions cover the law of ethics, such as taking gifts or divulging confidential information. It tests your knowledge of the vocational requirements for qualifying for disability benefits. And you have to know the complexities of the Social Security Act. Taking a standardized test like this one requires a certain way of thinking. The questions are tricky and if you’re not thoroughly prepared for it, you won’t pass.
The test is great for measuring an advocate’s knowledge of the system and application process. And the fact that you are required to have years of prior advocacy experience before becoming accredited ensures that you have the practical experience to represent someone’s case. I believe, however, that one of the most important factors is how good you are at interacting with the claimant, and how motivated you are to work hard for the claimant. These are qualities, I think, that makes one an exceptional Advocate.
Now that I’m accredited, I have to take continuing education courses. I do this by going to different conferences around the country and taking seminars, mostly with the National Association of Disability Representatives (NADR) or the National Organization of Social Security Conferences (NOSSCR). I’ve taken a variety of seminars on specific medical conditions, an area of expertise not covered in the accreditation test, and classes to stay current on new policies and procedures at SSA.
If someone were to ask me what the advantage is of working with an accredited non-attorney versus a lawyer, I would say that disability advocacy is a specialty. I am totally focused on what I do and I am in tune with my clients. Unless an attorney or lawyer is in practice exclusively for disability, I think that’s the big difference. I do this all day, every day, whereas, disability could be just one area of a lawyer’s practice.
I admit that my work can be frustrating for me. By the time a case comes to me, the claimant has gone through months of waiting and two denials, one at the initial level and the other at the reconsideration level of the appeals process. Then the case will hang in a holding pattern for another year or so before getting scheduled for a hearing. I am often dealing with claimants who have reached the panic point. But we try to stay patient together until the hearing.
They are usually nervous at the hearing, but I try to put them at ease as much as possible. The hearing is very informal, for one thing. And it’s usually held in a small room with only the Administrative Law Judge, an assistant, me, the claimant, and maybe a few witnesses to support the vocational or medical aspects of the case.
Very rarely do we know the outcome, unless it’s a bench decision when the judge makes a determination on the spot. It usually takes another two months before we know the outcome. But, it’s so worth it when we win. It’s personally rewarding for me. I can only imagine how it must feel for my client.
According to SSA statistics, claimants get better results if they are represented. If you are considering one over the other, get a referral, ask questions…be proactive!