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Q&A with an attorney: Preparing for a Social Security hearing

Obtaining disability benefits from the Social Security Administration is never easy, as the preparation for a case and hearing can be nerve wrecking. However, with an experienced attorney, the process can be made much easier. Harold W. Conick has been practicing law and getting clients approved for SSA disability payments for more than 30 years. He took some time to answer questions about how to prepare for a disability claim hearing.

Q: How long does it typically take to prepare for a hearing? How long does it last?

Harold Conick: The preparation for the hearing usually extends from the time when we’re initially retained by the client to a few days or so before the hearing when we’re finalizing all the exhibits and making sure we have all the evidence lined up. Documentary and testimonial evidence is necessary to present to the judge for the hearing itself, which lasts about an hour or hour and a half.

Generally, evidence assembly lasts for months and sometimes even better than a year. The hearing preparation can extend a very long time. The time it takes to set a hearing depends on the region. It can vary depending on whether a claimant lives in a rural or urban area. It can take a year to two years from the initial application to a hearing because there’s a backlog in the hearing offices.

Q: What about in Chicago?

HC: It’s a fairly long wait time in Chicago. It can take a year and a half or better. The best thing [clients] can do is apply early as soon as they anticipate they won’t be able to work competitively. They need to seriously consider applying. If they want help applying, they should use a lawyer. If they get turned down, they should definitely use a lawyer. We handle applications from the start and there’s some benefit to it, which is that the claimant has an expert preparation from the start. 85 percent of people get turned down on claims prior to a hearing, so there’s no benefit to apply without an attorney unless they’re really, really ill [and can get approved sooner].

Q: Is there anything that surprises clients about hearings?

HC: The thing that may surprise the client is that it is not a very long time frame for the hearing. It’s only an hour and its pretty crammed full of witnesses. The client’s testimony might not take more than 15-20 minutes but its critical testimony. If the client has a witness who can testify, that is part of the hearing as well. It’s very important to be organized and have a well thought out hearing [plan] so all the critical evidence can be presented in the time frame that’s available. There’s strategy involved – its like playing chess.

Q: What’s the most important thing for someone going into a SSA hearing to know?

The most important thing is the general rule that the judges are thinking all people can work at something no matter what their medical condition is. The exception is that you cannot work at anything. They’re not presuming that you can’t work, they’re presuming that you can do something. You have to prove to them you can’t do anything, even a sedentary job. Most people mistakenly believe that if they can’t do their former job they are disabled, which is not the law.