Most people have probably seen Charles Binder on TV. He's the guy in the cowboy hat saying, "We'll deal with the government; you have enough to worry about." What follows is an interview with the man underneath the hat, Social Security Disability (SSD) lawyer Charles E. Binder. Away from the video cameras, Charles Binder is passionate about what he does and the clients he serves. He gets angry about those who try to demonize disabled workers who are merely seeking the benefits they paid for with each FICA deduction. He is incensed when politicians try to gain points by describing SSD as a form of welfare. And he is frustrated because he cannot help every single person who needs assistance. Read on to learn more.
Becoming a Social Security Disability Lawyer
Q. Why did you become an attorney? Is there any particular event in your life that pulled you in this direction?
There was never an epiphany that made me want to be a lawyer. I am a child of the 1960s and like all of my generation lived through a president who asked citizens to think about what they could do for their country. I also lived through the civil rights movement. Being a lawyer seemed the most effective way to be of service. My brother Harry planned to be a physician and I did not want to do the same thing as he. However, we both discovered we did not care for chemistry or biology while in high school, making the physician option an unlikely choice for both of us.
Q. Did you try any other type of legal practice before becoming an SSD lawyer?
When I got out of law school at Georgetown, I was lucky to get a job as an attorney with the Legal Aid Society in New York City. At that time, Legal Aid had the contract with the government to supply public defenders to poor people accused of crimes. I spent three years representing thousands of people accused of crimes. It was a really good fit for me. I met my mentor at Legal Aid. He always said that the role of a Legal Aid attorney was to give the poor the type of representation the rich would automatically be able to afford. The three years there were the equivalent of a medical residency.
Q. How did you become an SSD advocate?
I didn't choose to represent the disabled; that path was chosen for me. My brother Harry, who founded the firm, was already representing many disabled clients while handling a broad general practice. Harry was and remains incredibly curious and is far more knowledgeable about many areas of the law than I am.
When our father died unexpectedly, Harry had to take over and run (in addition to handling his full- time law practice) our Dad's business in order to help our mother. I had to leave Legal Aid to help Harry with his practice so he could help run the business. With my trial skills and my wish to represent people who needed help, particularly those who could not afford it, Social Security was a good fit.
Q. Now that you have been practicing in this area for so long, do you think you made the right decision?
It is a great practice. I always wanted to help people who needed help, and that's what we do all day, all week and all year. My big regret is that I cannot help everyone, and that all I can do is prove that claimants are disabled. I help them receive an extremely modest monthly check and Medicare after 29 months. Although I actively read about many areas of the law, I know that my skills and personality fit the SSD world well. I have no regrets about my choice.
I cannot think of a client who is better off being disabled than working. The monthly Social Security check is far less than what someone could earn if healthy. Each of us pays FICA taxes to support this social insurance and yet to hear the blather of politicians describing the program as welfare - as the governor of Maine did recently - infuriates me.
A Day in the Life
Q. Please describe a typical client. What are their concerns, fears and goals?
There is no "typical client." But what each faces is a fear of the future. What is going to happen to me now that I cannot support myself and my family? How am I going to pay the doctor bills? What if I get sicker or need surgery? Every one of my clients has those fears. Most of my clients also have issues with loss of self-esteem. Having a job, having independence, showing up for work every day are things most of us take for granted. My clients, unable to work, frequently feel inadequate and that they are letting their families down. They are frustrated that neighbors think they are lazy and there's nothing that can be done about it.
Many people with chronic pain have feelings of depression. Having had chronic pain for so many years myself, I empathize with them. I wish that some of the politicians attacking the program would spend a few days in their shoes without the security blanket of a salary and guaranteed health insurance (Congress gives itself terrific medical insurance). They might be more sympathetic. Most of my clients are hardworking good souls who have been very unlucky in their health.
Q. Which client stories affect you the most?
The most heartbreaking stories are those of younger people who are injured or get a disease in their 20s and 30s - young women who learn they have MS or firefighters who rip their backs and shoulders out doing search and rescue. I see a lot of Iraq vets returning with post-traumatic-stress disorders who face demons every day. The number of diseases and disorders that I have dealt with is staggering - who knew there could be such horrific diseases that seemingly randomly affect perfectly nice, healthy and hardworking Americans?
Q. What are typical issues faced by your clients?
People are afraid that they will be unable to support their families and will be unable to get medical treatment. People run out of money while waiting the two to three years it takes to get an administrative hearing. They can't cut back on the electrical bill, but they can cut back on doctor visits. They can stop refilling their own medication because between food and medication, feeding the family comes first.
I remember being so angry when one of my clients with a rare genetic disorder testified that he was giving his medication to his son who had the same disorder. Of course, this meant he was deliberately letting his condition become worse while trying to contain the ravaging disorder in his son. An administrative law judge found his testimony "incredible" and denied him in spite of the overwhelming evidence. Who would, who could, make up such a story, particularly when the doctor's records confirmed it? As it was, the doctor gave him samples since he knew he could not pay the prescription costs and was also trying to get the drug company to supply the physician with more samples to share. Fortunately, we were able to overturn that decision, but the appeal added years to the case and no doubt shortened his life.
Q. How do you stay in touch with colleagues who also handle SSD cases?
My closest friends in the field are colleagues who started around the same time I did. One of my best friends played second base while I was the shortstop in the sixth grade - he is now the leading Social Security Disability lawyer in New Orleans, Matt Greenbaum. We lost track of each other when our families moved apart and reconnected 25 years later. We get together at professional conferences. In the New York City area, the legal service attorneys and the private bar have a pretty good relationship and meet occasionally to discuss representation.
Q. Tell me about your competitors. Are there any you would have liked to work with or for?
I've been handling cases my way for too many years to work well with others. I like the way Binder& Binder represents people and I train all my advocates to do it the way that seems to work best. But you are a fool if you stop learning. One of the great lawyers in this field, Rudolph Patterson of Macon, Georgia, used to say if you learn one thing at a three-day conference, the conference was a success.
Q. What was your most interesting case and why? What was your most difficult case? What was your most disappointing case?
When I was working at Legal Aid, I learned to let the bad cases slip away from my memory. I cannot remember "the most disappointing" case. It was probably a case I lost where I believed the client was disabled, but I could not convince a fair administrative law judge. The judges who are anti-claimant color your perspective because you know they deny people they should approve. Sometimes that can affect one's objectivity. I am incensed when a doctor refuses to cooperate and write a report for a disabled client. Cases like these really bother me.
It's hard to remember my most difficult case. I did have one client whom the ALJ simply did not believe. The ALJ was an old-timer, a man of real judgment and spine, but there was something about my client he did not believe. Consequently, he just would not grant the application for benefits. He was one of my favorite judges, a terrific person, a man who had lived a varied life and had been seriously wounded in combat. However, that case went up and down on appeal, including into the federal courts. It took about eight years before the ALJ finally agreed to pay the case. That was hard, especially because I had told my client that he had a terrific judge and that we should win easily since the proof was so strong. Nevertheless, that ALJ was a great judge and I was very saddened when he passed. The new crop of ALJs seem to have much narrower life experiences and seem much less involved in the cases than the ALJs of his era, when it was harder to become an ALJ.
Q. What do you see as major challenges in your area of practice? Do you think these challenges will go away or will they improve?
There is a pendulum in every field. Justice Sotomayor recently spoke at a conference I attended. She mentioned that she watched "Perry Mason" as a kid and that made her want to become a judge. Defense lawyers, defending the innocent, used to be the subject of popular TV shows. Now all the TV shows are about brilliant detectives finding clues at crime scenes and convicting the guilty who are portrayed as hiding behind their defense lawyers.
Conservatives in Congress and elsewhere are again attacking the Social Security program as they have ever since 1935. Recently, the governor of Maine described the disabled as being welfare recipients instead of acknowledging that they are people who have paid into a social insurance plan and, as with any other insurance that you pay for, are entitled to receive disability benefits when they get sick or injured. Governor LePage and those like him don't seem to understand that all my clients would want their health rather than the small amount of monthly benefits they have to live on.
Q. What can individual lawyers do to make things better for their clients?
Attorneys must be persistent and develop the file. Often, clients are under such economic pressure that they cannot see their health professionals. Yet it is the opinions of doctors that prove their cases. In many parts of the country, there are no clinics or hospitals for the poor, so no matter how sick you are, it is almost impossible to prove it. When I learn of states turning down federal Medicaid money that would help treat their poor citizens, I am appalled.
Q. Do clients have misconceptions about what you can do for them?
Many clients think I can tell them what to say or that I can tell their doctors what to write. I can do neither. The best witness is a truthful one who discusses his symptoms in his own words. The hardest problem I face with some clients is getting them to discuss their symptoms, what I call the Gary Cooper syndrome. I wish I could get doctors to spend more time helping their patients prove their cases, but doctors did not become physicians to write medical reports.
Q. Who has been your most influential professional mentor during your career?
My mentor at Legal Aid taught me how to think like a trial lawyer. He and I would meet before every trial and go over my strategy. He never would tell me what to do and always denied he had any ideas at all. He would force me to think about each question, form a theory of my case and try to anticipate everything that could happen. One of his famous expressions was he would rather have a lean mind than a thick briefcase filled with paper.
Q. Is there something you did as a young lawyer that you now wish you had done differently or that you regret?
I had a criminal trial that has bothered me for over 30 years. I can remember the client's name, the crime, the fact pattern. I had won a number of jury trials in a row and was too cocky so I wasn't tough enough in my decision-making. The jury went against my client. My client had done the crime, but I did not think my representation was as good as it should have been. It still bothers me.
Beyond the Law
Q. What would you like to do when you retire (if you plan to retire)?
My family does not believe in retirement. My mom worked until she was 78 and died in the hospital after elective surgery on her foot, an operation she underwent to enable her to continue to walk to work. Harry always tells me he wants to retire and work less, but he has a lot of other business plans he is interested in. As I said, he is extremely curious. I wouldn't mind having time to read for pleasure, to travel more, but retirement is not something I am thinking about. I deal with chronic pain, which is exhausting, so I have less "free" time than I did when I was younger.
Q. Is there something that you have always wanted to do, but have not? What stopped you?
When I was a kid, I figured I would replace Mickey Mantle in center field, but I learned in grade school that everyone else in my class felt the same way. My best friend then (and now) was a better hitter and even he wasn't good enough to make our junior high school baseball team so I figured then I had better do something else. I wish I had artistic talent. I admire people who are creative in the arts - my hero is a famous Broadway composer.
Q. How do you balance life and work? What does your family think about your work?
My family is in the field. I am very close to Harry - he is my only sibling. My spouse founded NOSSCR, the professional association for lawyers and advocates in this field. She started at about the same time that I did and no one knows more about Social Security law than she. We actually met at one of her conferences, became friends and the rest is history, as the cliché goes. We try to avoid discussing work too much, but she is as passionate as I am about protecting the rights of the disabled. She is a prolific author and editor and well-known because of the frequency with which she has testified before Congress.
Q. What do you do when you go on vacation or take a day off?
When I was younger, vacations were mostly traveling, although I don't think Harry nor I ever took a real vacation for the first 15 years of our partnership. When we did take off, we would follow our hockey team around and see three games in three cities in four days or we would go hiking and rafting in Western Canada for a few days. He still does the latter, although I can't do the rafting trips anymore. My spouse and I have a few places in the U.S. which we like to visit, though airplane travel is now hard for me.
Q. What advice do you have for someone contemplating law school? If there is one thing a young lawyer should know, what would it be?
My nephew is starting law school this year. He should just work hard, try to find work that he loves and be as ethical and professional as he can be.
Q. Talk about your college years. Did you take any class that pushed you toward law school? What was your major?
My major was political science, focusing more how to govern than on political theory.
Q. What was your most difficult class in law school? How did you get through it?
I hated everything about law school and have no idea how I made it through.
Q. What do you like to read? What TV shows do you watch? What sports do you play?
My reading is eclectic. I tend to read more history than novels, although I have promised myself to reread Philip Roth and Dostoevsky. The best book I have read in the last few years was "Moby Dick"- I read it as a kid and didn't think I would enjoy it the second time, but it's a great novel.
My TV watching is mainly old British detective stories on PBS. Living in New York, I do what people who live in NYC should do. We go to theater a lot; for example, we recently saw Alan Cummings in "Cabaret." We see a lot of off-Broadway theater and go to the Philharmonic whenever we can. In my mid-30s, I was a fanatic about the New York City Ballet. I'm a serious Rangers (hockey) and Yankees fan. And since neither my spouse nor I like to cook, we enjoy the restaurants wherever we go. I have a reputation of being a wine nut.
Q. How would you characterize your legal career thus far?
I've been very fortunate because I have been able to do what I wanted to do - help others. Moreover, I've been pretty successful at it. When I began as a Legal Aid attorney, becoming an advocate for the disabled was not on my radar screen. But it makes sense: Both then and now, I have tried to give top- notch representation to those who could not otherwise afford it.