How is a Disability Advocate Different From an Attorney?

A disability advocate is a professional representative that assists individuals who file for Social Security disability benefits. This advocate is a non-attorney, with legal expertise but without a degree in law. A disability advocate must still go through training and certification, ensuring he or she is qualified to address a claimant’s concerns.

An Advocate’s Qualifications

An advocate must have either a college degree or training and work experience equivalent to a college education. He or she must additionally pass a criminal background check and a certification exam on Social Security regulations and disability rules. To maintain professional certification, an advocate must satisfy the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) continuing education requirements, which are designed to ensure the advocate remains current on changes to the disability rules, regulations, processes, and programs.

Should I hire an attorney?

An Attorney’s Qualifications

A disability attorney’s education and training are more rigorous than an advocate’s. He or she must have a bachelor’s as well as a graduate, law degree in addition to passing the state bar exam and remaining in good standing with the state bar association. A disability lawyer must also complete continuing education requirements, though not just in subjects related to Social Security rules and regulations, but in other areas of the law that may pertain to your disability claim as well.

Advocate vs. Attorney Capabilities

A advocate can help you with many aspects of a disability claim, including everything from understanding SSA processes to preparing for and appearing at an appeal hearing. Advocates with less experience might not be proficient as attorneys are however at identifying legal arguments, conducting legal research, or at cross-examining witnesses, although many advocates have years of experience in the courtroom and can be even more capable at defending your claim than an attorney.

Advocate and Attorney Fees

Although there are some non-profit organizations that provide disability assistance free of charge, most advocates charge for their services, just like attorneys do. Fees are processed by the SSA and paid directly to your advocate or attorney. He or she receives payment only after the SSA verifies the fees requested are fair and accurate and that you had a legal, binding agreement with your representative.

Although attorneys and advocates differ in their qualifications and the kinds of services they provide, they essentially charge the same. This is because the SSA has established limits on what an advocate or attorney can charge: 25 percent of any back benefits you receive when your claim is approved, up to a maximum of $6,000.

Since the fees you’ll pay for representation are the same, and experience is often variable whether you're working with an attorney or an advocate, you'll usually have a much higher chance of qualifying regardless of who you work with. The most important step will be contacting someone who can help you with your claim.