You’ve waited more than two years to go before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Finally, you’ll get the chance to tell the Social Security Administration, face to face, how your health has impacted your life. If the ALJ finds you disabled under the Social Security Act, you will receive much needed income.

As you walk into the hearing room you recognize the ALJ and the court reporter. But who is the third person? The judge introduces that person as a vocational expert. You’re confused and ask yourself, “Why is this person here and what is their role in deciding my future?”

The Vocational Expert's Responsibilities at Your Social Security Disability Hearing

Judges and juries in civil, criminal, and workers’ compensation proceedings rely heavily on expert witnesses. In those proceedings, the threshold to be considered an expert witness is high and the parties spend time trying to show that the other side’s “expert witness” is not an expert at all. In Social Security Disability proceedings, however, the threshold is much lower to be considered a vocational expert witness is much lower.

So first things first. What exactly is a vocational expert? A vocational expert is someone who provides factual information and expert opinion based on:

  • knowledge of and up-to-date experience with the existence of jobs in the labor market, market settings, and the skill level and physical demands of various jobs; and
  • knowledge of the concept of “transferability of skills.”

According to the Social Security Administration, the criteria for a person to qualify as a vocational expert in Social Security disability hearings is as follows:

  • up-to-date knowledge of, and experience with, occupational and industrial trends;
  • up-to-date knowledge of, and experience with, local labor market conditions;
  • the ability to evaluate age, education, and past work experience in light of residual functional capacities;
  • current experience counseling adult handicapped people and placing them in jobs;
  • knowledge and use of vocational reference sources (Dictionary of Occupational Titles, Census reports, Bureau of Labor Statistics data); and,
  • experience classifying jobs.

At your hearing the ALJ will ask the vocational expert to answer specific questions regarding the type and number of jobs available to individuals with certain exertional and nonexertional limitations. Your Richmond Social Security Disability attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine the vocational expert and provide additional hypothetical questions.

It is important to know that the vocational expert is not a doctor and should not comment on medical matters. More specifically, the vocational expert should never state whether he or she thinks you are capable of working.

Further, the vocational expert should not examine you without the consent of the ALJ or your attorney. If consent is granted, it should be limited to questions regarding the scope of your past work.


The ALJ presiding over your disability case may call a vocational expert to provide testimony when:

  • Disability Determination Services (DDS) has found you to have a severe medical impairment that prevents you from performing your past relevant work;
  • the ALJ is unable to decide your case under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines;
  • you a mental health condition that causes nonexertional limitations; or
  • the Appeals Council has remanded your case and directed the ALJ to take testimony from a vocational expert.


Vocational experts are expert witnesses. As such, they should conduct themselves as though they are testifying in criminal or civil trials. They owe you and the court full and complete answers.

Neither you, the ALJ, nor your attorney may have substantive contact with the vocational expert before or after the hearing. This means your attorney cannot contact the vocational expert prior to your disability hearing to try to explain your limitations or gain an advantage. If the vocational expert has prior knowledge of your case or has contacted you in the past, he or she should disqualify themselves from testifying in your case.

For more information on the vocational expert’s role in your case, or for help winning your Social Security disability claim, contact Richmond disability lawyer Corey Pollard today for a free consultation. There is no attorney fee unless you win your case.