“It’s a beautiful day,” said Raleigh disability attorney Lila Forro as she gazed up at the crystalline blue sky on a perfect North Carolina spring morning. She and law partner Liz Lunn then got their Zumba on with some of their clients at the annual National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) NAMIWalks 2.4 mile walk. “We’re here to celebrate recovery and celebrate being together,” proclaimed the event’s emcee.
Back in their sponsorship booth, Forro explained, “we share NAMI’s common interest and goal to assist people who are mentally ill because the majority of our clients have some aspect of mental illness, even if it’s situational depression from the loss of a job or a home.”
“Lawyers for the Disabled” is how the firm of Lunn & Forro describes its practice. The firm’s focus is assisting people who are seeking Social Security disability benefits or disabled veterans benefits. “Typically, our clients have filed for their benefits and the government is dragging its feet, or our clients have been denied benefits and need to appeal,” said Lunn.
Legal Aid Liz Lunn and Lila Forro met when both worked for Legal Aid of North Carolina in the 1990s. The job required them to handle an array of matters including food stamps, unemployment, housing, family law and domestic violence.
“We worked for LANC at a time when funding had been cut, so we never worked with legal assistants. We had to do everything ourselves, and there couldn’t have been a better training ground,” Forro said. It’s a training you can get nowhere else. It’s like working in an emergency room. We learned an awful lot because of the great people at legal aid.”
“On intake days, people would crowd into the lobby and be piled up waiting for advice,” said Forro.
“We had to be very efficient,” said Lunn. “We set up systems, we created forms and we streamlined our work in every way possible.”
One-on-One When Lunn and Forro launched their firm in 2011, they chose to focus on disability law. “It’s really a hazard for attorneys who don’t handle Social Security disability cases or veterans compensation to take on a case without a lot of preparation. For years, all we’ve done is work with Social Security and the Veterans Administration. These agencies have their own forms and rules, which they periodically change,” said Lunn. “Without knowing their requirements for a claim, you can mess up a case unintentionally in a way that can’t be fixed.”
“Social Security’s claim process is not a system that makes readily apparent to claimants what needs to be done,” said Forro. “Having an attorney to help is a relief for our clients who don’t feel well and can’t bear the thought of leafing through a 10-page form, keeping detailed records about their medical treatment or filing an appeal. So we simplify paperwork when possible for our clients. We shorten forms or use colored paper forms to make it easier for our clients to focus on providing the information we need for a case.”
A disability law practice requires close contact with clients about their frequently changing life status. A client’s Social Security disability claim may be affected significantly by new or worsening health problems, homelessness or even change in marital status.
One of the unique features of the practice is the close communication with clients. “Unlike many firms, we answer our own phones and speak directly with our clients. We do our best to let our clients know what we need to develop a case and emphasize that they must seek treatment for all the impairments they say are keeping them from working. So we are very persistent in encouraging our clients to get what medical treatment they can and we follow up with them,” explained Forro.
“Sometimes we have to be very direct with our clients. We have to scold those who are not doing what we told them to do – for example, reporting new problems to the doctor or getting help with substance abuse. For the sake of our clients, we need to be direct because they have no one else to talk to them the way we talk to them,” said Forro. “We call it the ‘momma effect,’ and our clients respond well to it.”
“Medical records provide pretty cut-and-dried statistical information: A client’s weight, blood work and the symptoms they are reporting to the doctor. But a client’s medical records don’t always provide complete information about a mental or physical disability. It’s our job to develop the whole picture of a client for an administrative law judge to consider,” said Forro. “For example, we’ve talked with enough people to recognize the voice of a person with untreated depression. We talk to them about it and encourage them to get treatment.”
“So-and-So paid my client!” Lunn and Forro are paid on a contingency basis. Many potential clients don’t understand that payment up front is not necessary. “That’s what keeps a lot of people from calling to get help with a case. They are afraid they’ll have to pay an attorney and if they’re not working, they have no money,” said Forro.
“We can’t make them well and we can’t immediately fix someone’s financial situation, but often we can point them to the social services they need,” said Lunn.
“We often learn a claim is approved before the client knows. You’ll hear one of us yell down the hallway, “Judge So-and-So paid my client!” said Lunn. “Then we have the privilege of calling a client to let them know they’ve been approved, that they’re going to be getting money and medical care. Often, it’s the medical care they’re most excited about. They’ll be able to see a doctor and get their medicine.”
“It’s a great feeling and a relief for us because we know more about these people than anyone in their lives and we know what a precarious position they are in,” said Forro.
“I think one of the most significant lessons we learned from working at LANC was the importance of community outreach. We’ve carried that over into private practice with our busy schedule of presentations about disability and VA benefits to medical offices, support groups and NAMI chapters throughout North Carolina.”
Back at the starting line for NAMIWalks, sponsors Lunn and Forro inspected the arch of balloons. The atmosphere percolated with music, dancing, happy chatter and laughter. “Yup,” repeated Forro, “It’s going to be a beautiful day.”