In Social Security disability law, it’s a poorly kept secret that a dwindling number of younger attorneys are entering the field.
Michael Liner is a notable exception; after just two years of working at another firm, he opened his own practice that now has branches throughout Ohio.
“I’m nervous that if we don’t replenish with the younger generation, there are not going to be advocates for the disabled. There always will be somebody [to do the work] when they see a profit, but it’s not going to be the people who got into it because they wanted to create change,” he reflects.
Michael was diagnosed as a child with neurological issues, including a motor tic syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He credits his family’s advocacy and encouragement with helping him learn to manage these challenges, receive an appropriate education, and achieve professional success, and he knows that many of his clients were not as fortunate in the support made available to them.
These formative experiences helped Michael find his passion in this work and with his clients. He’s now on a mission to encourage more young attorneys to do this work and start their own practices, which is becoming increasingly rare.
The roadblocks to opening one’s own practice abound in Social Security disability law. “Even if you get paid on 75% of the clients you take, it can take about two years to see any income from the work you’re doing – not profit, income.”
Michael continues, “If you’re starting a practice, there are all these problems with even just getting your representative paperwork processed at the local office, and then making sure that you get access to ERE [Electronic Records Express] and making sure that the files get set up right, and meanwhile SSA is contacting your clients without you knowing.”
It has become incredibly difficult to have a practice without hiring someone specifically to do tasks such as following up…constantly. Despite following procedure and filing all the forms correctly, Michael often finds that paperwork gets lost, and one needs to call the local Social Security field office seven or eight times just to confirm forms were processed for a single client.
Attorneys thinking about starting their own disability law practice often end up going in another direction. Michael laments, “When we try to figure out why younger attorneys aren’t flocking here, it’s because no matter what we do it’s an inefficient process. It’s slow to get paid, it’s totally contingency fee-based, they [SSA] haven’t raised our fees in forever…how is that attractive to somebody who just graduated law school with a quarter-million dollars in debt?”
It’s not attractive. Michael’s experience and frustration led him to get involved in NOSSCR leadership. He now sits on its board of directors and is working hard to revitalize the NextGen Committee for younger and less experienced members.
Given how difficult it can be to start one’s own firm, he encourages skipping the frills, such as a fancy website, and meeting clients where they are. More important is making presentations to those who are in direct contact with potential clients and building relationships with people in professions where people get injured at higher rates, such as first responders. Those starting a new practice also need to work with other local disability attorneys before the fees come in to make ends meet. And of course, it is extremely important to invest in a NOSSCR membership.
“NOSSCR membership gives you a community, and I will tell you that especially locally, especially as a younger attorney, I felt like I was on an island at 27 years old as a law firm owner just starting out,” Michael says. “NOSSCR gave me a group of experienced people that I could lean on for support, beyond just the conferences and education…what about the fact that we have a community of resources that is unparalleled in the field? Literally, the people who were the founders of the disability law practice are NOSSCR members and who are still engaged and active and show up to those conferences because they’re so passionate about it.”
He continues, “Without the support, I don’t think I would have been able to have the success that I have, certainly not as fast. It would have taken me a lot longer to find my way.”