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Tuesday, August 22, 2017


John Koontz is a social security disability law specialist with Daggett Shuler. We asked him seven questions about his work and the challenges he faces representing the disabled. 

1. What is most challenging about your work?

SpotlightI think there are two big challenges to handling disability cases. The first is the interplay or juncture of law and medicine. You need a good working knowledge of medicine so that you can understand how your client’s physical and mental conditions impact their functional abilities. At the same time, you have to understand how those functional limitations fit within the extensive legal framework for disability claims. This means you have to understand and apply the appropriate statutes (Social Security Act), federal regulations, rulings from the Social Security Administration, and decisions from the federal courts. The second major challenge is managing the client’s expectations. Every client believes they are disabled and that the Social Security Administration should approve their claim. Unfortunately, it is not always that simple or straight-forward. As the claims process grinds on over months and even years, the stress on the client increases as their financial situation erodes and their health deteriorates. They may become desperate or even hopeless, and it can be very challenging to manage their expectations.

2. What is most fun about your work?

From a practical standpoint, I really enjoy the medical component of each case. It is fascinating to me to go through the medical records and piece together each client’s medical conditions, and discover how those medical conditions interfere with or affect their ability to do things. Doing this brings a great deal of medicine into play, and I find that I am constantly learning something new, which I enjoy. From a personal standpoint, I really like helping our clients get back on their feet. Most of them have lost so much, not the least of which is their health, and they desperately need someone to help them. It is very rewarding to work with them on such a long journey and see them get the disability benefits that they deserve. This is often a life-changing moment for them and their families and it is very rewarding to be a part of that.

3. What led you to become a lawyer?

My father is an attorney in Concord, so I grew up in the legal community around attorneys and judges. Then I married my high school sweetheart, and her father is an attorney. So, law school was always something that was in the back of my mind. However, my original plan was to get my doctorate in political science and work for the government or teach at a university. After I got my master’s degree at the University of Georgia, I decided that I wanted to have more career options and flexibility with where I lived and raised my family. I thought law school would do that, so my wife and I with our new daughter moved to Knoxville and I attended law school at the University of Tennessee. Obviously, this means we are conflicted each year when Georgia and Tennessee meet on the gridiron.

4. What made you decide to pursue certification?

I believe certification is a measure or indicator of an attorney’s dedication to a practice area and the level at which it is being practiced. This is because getting certified and maintaining certification is a rigorous process. To be certified you have to pass an examination that measures your competency in the practice area, you have to show that you devote a significant number of hours to the practice area, you must attend a specific number of CLE hours that are related to the practice area, and you have to receive favorable reviews from your peers. Recertification involves the same requirements except that you do not have to pass another exam. As a result, recertification confirms that you remain committed to the practice area and that you are practicing it at the highest level. Like most of us, my parents instilled in me the expectation that I would always strive to do my best at whatever endeavor I was pursuing. Since certification represents the highest level of devotion and achievement in my practice area, I naturally wanted to be certified as a specialist when it became available through the State Bar.

5. What is it like to work with clients who are managing disabilities in their lives?

It can be very challenging because representing clients in disability claims goes well beyond just the case. At some point, almost all disability clients have additional issues that must be addressed. For example, they may not have health insurance or the financial resources to get the medical treatment they need, so you have to find them free or reduced fee clinics. They may be facing foreclosure, eviction, or repossession notices due to their loss of income, so you have to steer them to legal resources that can help them with these problems. They may have mental health or substance abuse problems that are not being addressed, so you have to get them to mental health facilities. Finally, they may not be able to put food on the table or keep their lights on, so you have to get them in touch with community organizations that can help them with these financial needs. It really involves a holistic approach to helping the client, with the disability claim being just one of their needs. 

6. What activities/volunteer groups are you involved in?

I am active with the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR) and the North Carolina Advocates for Justice. I have spoken at disability CLEs in the past and before community groups about various disability topics. The firm is very active in the community and sponsors many events throughout the year. Our biggest event is the Safe and Sober Prom Night Program. This lasts for several months during prom season and I, as well as the other attorneys and staff at the firm, take turns visiting more than 40 area high schools to put on inspirational programs and challenge the students to remain safe and sober on prom night. It is a major undertaking for the firm, but we are all dedicated to this message.

7. Who is your role model and why?

The other attorneys at Daggett Shuler are my role models. I know that may sound a little self-serving, but it is the truth. It is a pleasure to work with them and they are an inspiration to me. I have the utmost respect for each one of them as attorneys as well as individuals of integrity. They set the highest standards of professionalism and competency in their practice areas, and the highest standards of integrity and morality as individuals. That shared culture is probably why we have practiced together for so long. I know that I can count on them to support and encourage me in my law practice as well as in my personal life.

Filed Under: General News