Hiring an attorney may be the most important decision you'll make during your disability claim process.
You want a lawyer who cares. You want a lawyer who is an expert. Your
lawyer should keep you in the loop and listen to what you have to say.
You don't need a lawyer who is close to where you live. You
meet the lawyer who represents you. VA cases are federal and as long as
your lawyer is accredited by the VA to represent veterans, he or she can
do that from anywhere.
We ask that you take the time to read every word on
this page. Then read the page again. Only then should you start your
search to find the advocate who is the best match for you.
As with everything else in the VAWatchdog blog, we can
present the information for you but it's your job to work with it.
The VAWatchdog policy...hiring a veterans representative.
VAWatchdog maintains a simple and consistent policy regarding your representation to the VA.
To file an initial claim, you do not need or want a representative. You can do it yourself with little fuss.
Once your claim has been denied, and most claims will be denied, you will have to appeal.
We recommend that almost every appeal be managed by an expert attorney.
To retain an expert costs you nothing out of pocket and there are no up front expenses.
An attorney doesn't get paid unless you win. That's a pretty good incentive in any line of work. The VSO who you think represents you for free gets paid whether you win or not.
Who will work hardest for you?
We recommend that you call 2 or 3 of the lawyers who advertise here. Choose the lawyer who seems to be most responsive to you and your claim.
Appeals to the VA aren't a game. VA employs hundreds of lawyers who will fight against your appeal.
Don't go to a gun fight armed with a knife. Hire yourself a warrior. You'll be glad you did.
Although I have been in the veterans’
law business now for well over a decade, I am still frequently asked;
“Why do veterans need a lawyer?”
Curiously, those who most
frequently ask this question are veterans who have been fighting
for his or her benefits for the longest times. And, these are
also most frequently the people who will wave off whatever reasons
that I give with, “Heck, I can write a letter to VA/the Board/the
If the goal is to keep a claim alive
for as long as possible, I agree that these people do not need a
lawyer. If, however, the goal is to get a favorable decision as
quickly as possible, expending a decade . . . or two chasing an
award is not doing much of anything useful – and saving
a legal fee out of an award that is never made is voodoo economics.
So what does a good lawyer do
that is worth all that money? There are many, many things that
go into that letter. Instead of running through a list of them
all, I present a simple example.
On January 4, 2013 the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in a case
named Harris v. Shinseki. Just knowing this much puts a
person in a very small universe. In that case the Federal
Circuit Court overruled the Veterans Court and the Board of Veterans’
Appeals and remanded Mr. Harris’s case to
determine if he was
entitled to an effective date of 1985 instead of 2002 for his medical
conditions – 17 year of retroactive benefits is a pretty big deal.
Good for Mr. Harris? You bet.
But more importantly, perhaps good for
you, or your spouse, or your neighbor too. Why? Because the
decision made clear that the Board’s practice of applying the
“benefit-of-the-doubt rule” does not satisfy the Secretary’s
separate duty to “generously construe the evidence” in a case
where a veteran is representing
him - or herself.
terms this means that if the VA dismissed a claim and only stated
that the benefit-of-the-doubt rule “was not for application” or
did not apply – you may have a legal basis to appeal (or reopen)
the claim. Oh, and if you signed an Application for Medical
Benefits form you may have filed an “informal claim” for
benefits that might support years (or decades) of an earlier
You now are in a very exclusive group who know what the law is right
now regarding how VA must treat a veteran’s communications and
what may be an informal claim. This group likely consists only of
the lawyers who argued the Harris case, you, and me. The Board
certainly does not know this yet.
The VARO staff likely won’t know
for several years, if then. Even the Veterans Court won’t
know it until someone appeals a case involving the issues.
That your lawyer knows what
happened in court last week could save your claim from being
denied tomorrow, or at least save you from another spin on the
hamster wheel. Who do you want writing your letter to VA?
To hire or "retain" an attorney to guide you through a VA disability
benefits appeal, you must first have a denial of an application that you
submitted. The lawyer usually can't help you before that happens.
You may have filed your claim to VA through a Veterans Service Officer
or you may have used my preferred way of doing things and gone DIY...Do
Most VSOs and your buddies will tell you that you need the
help of a VSO to file a claim. I don't support that idea. The VA claims
process isn't complex to dive into and only requires that you file some
About 70% of claims are denied at first no matter who files it. It's
very likely you'll have something denied so you can start thinking about
an attorney now.
lawyer isn't difficult. The first thing you need to know is that you
probably won't find a lawyer who is local to you. VA lawyers work at the
federal level so as long as they are certified by VA to represent
veterans, you can choose a lawyer who lives anywhere else away from you.
You may never meet your
lawyer face to face. He or she will do all the work for you by mail,
electronic mail and filings and on the phone. There isn't much hand
holding to be done in VA cases, the evidence and the law will take care
of itself with your lawyer guiding things.
To find the lawyer who is
right for you will require that you pick up the phone or send some
emails. The attorneys who are featured on my web site are known to me to
be reliable and committed to winning for veterans. I urge you to talk
to at least 2 or 3 prior to signing up with any attorney.
Look for an attorney who
is prompt in getting back to you to discuss your case. If you are
shuffled from one "paralegal" to the next and you aren't able to speak
with the lawyer, move on to someone else.
The lawyer should seem
interested in your case and spend enough time with you that you believe
that he or she understands all the issues. If you are rushed or if the
conversation is interrupted by other calls or people barging into their
office, you'll want to move on to the next person on your list.
are nearly 25 million veterans living in the United States today.
These brave men and women who defended our nation deserve compassion
and care. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is responsible for
providing health care and other benefits to these veterans and their
dependents; however, in recent years a number of veterans
associations and regulatory groups have drawn attention to
substandard care and conditions at many VA hospitals.
epidemic of substandard care can have a detrimental effect on the
victim’s quality of life, and may even result in permanent injury
or even death. If you believe that you or someone you love may have a
VA hospital medical malpractice claim, the lawyers at Hodes
Milman Liebeck Mosier can help.
Our experienced team has
the knowledge and resources to assist you in taking legal action
against the Veterans Administration under the Federal Tort Claims
Act, a process that can be unduly confusing and complex without the
guidance of an attorney with particular experience in filing
malpractice claims on behalf of veterans.
VA malpractice is
medical malpractice, and victims are entitled to appropriate
compensation for their hardship and suffering.
How To Hire A Veterans Law Attorney
This page is designed
to address the intricacies of retaining a lawyer for your case with the
VA. Attorneys who work with veterans on VA claims have training,
experience and are accredited to work with VA.
recommends that you begin your search for an attorney by first looking
around on this page. You'll find links to a number of lawyers. You should speak to 2 or 3 before you choose.
may need a lawyer for something that isn't associated with VA. For
example, if you are divorcing or if you have a criminal problem, a VA
lawyer probably won't help much. You should seek an attorney who is a specialist in whatever legal issue you may have.
general thoughts and principles you'll read here apply to almost all
instances that you need to think of legal representation.
you read here about attorneys who represent veterans also applies to
accredited agents. Accredited agents are individuals who have trained to represent veterans and who are authorized by VA. They perform much the same function as an attorney.
may be the most important page in the VAWatchdog series. We urge every
veteran to give serious consideration to speaking with an attorney as
soon as you receive a denial letter. This right to attorney representation had been denied to you until 2007.
You have the right to legal representation...use it!
A little history is appropriate.
Until 2007 veterans
weren't allowed to have attorney representation for VA actions in most
cases. Only appeals in higher courts were open to lawyers who would represent vets.
a veteran filed a claim for a deserved benefit with the VA, he or she
had two choices. They could use a Veterans Service Officer (VSO) or they
could go it alone. I refer to that as the Do It Yourself (DIY) way of handling your claim.
restriction has loose origins about the time of the Civil War. As the
war came to an end and many veterans were injured, the government
started development of what would eventually become today's
Department of Veterans Affairs. The profession of law wasn't as well
defined, controlled or restricted as it is today and any number of charlatans were advertising their services as lawyers.
were easy targets for these less than honest types and the government
sought to protect veterans by making it illegal to charge veterans for
any services that had to do with claims against the government.
Professional lawyers can't afford to give away their services all the
time so they were more or less forced to deny veterans representation.
continued until about 2005 and although attempts to modify existing
statutes had been made, none were successful until 2006 when the law was
By 2007, a veteran could retain a lawyer to represent him if and when there was a denial of a claim by the VA.
the law was interesting to observe. The Veterans Service Organizations
such as the DAV fought hard to maintain the status quo. They said that lawyers
would take money from veterans and that veterans didn't need to have
any rights to hire a lawyer...they proposed (as did VA itself) that the
was a friendly and paternalistic organization and that veterans could use organizations like DAV if they needed help.
bottom line was that DAV and VA told veterans that they have no rights
to representation or to due process when those same veterans had fought
long and hard to preserve those very rights.
In 2007 veterans
gained the right to hire attorneys for appeals at all levels. At first
there were very few lawyers practicing veterans law but over time the
field grew and practitioners were trained and professional
organizations were formed and standards were set. Today there are many
excellent attorneys available who can assist you.
The trick, of course, is to find the right lawyer for you. We'll help you along with that task.
persist that lawyers don't have the training and experience of the VSO
who has been doing veterans claims for many years. You may hear that a lawyer won't do anything but take a percentage of the money and that a VSO could do a better job for free.
disagree with that. I use this example often; I was a very good medic
and surgical technologist while on active duty. My 912D20 training was
excellent and I had good fortune to have a good bunch of people who
mentored me. Once I ETSed I worked in civilian hospitals for many more
years and I developed a
reputation as being darn good at my work. In
many settings I was the go-to guy for complex procedures in operating
rooms and cardiac cath labs.
I wasn't a doctor and never
pretended that I was. Like a VSO compared to a skilled attorney, I
didn't have the basic underlying education or certification to diagnose
and treat your disease or injury. Sure, I could second guess a lot of
the things I saw and there is no doubt I knew my stuff.
you really want me to do your surgery? When it comes to the complex
world of VA law, who do you want to trust your appeal to?
veterans to speak with a lawyer the moment they have a denial for any
claim. I don't know of any lawyer who won't assess your claim for free
and give you a good opinion as to your chances to prevail with your appeal.
How to be an engaged and helpful client:
Be absolutely truthful about all aspects of the claim
Return phone calls and respond to letters from the attorney promptly
Tell the attorney whenever you receive a letter or call from any VA office
Keep the attorney informed of changes in your address and contact information
Tell the attorney about and keep all VA appointments
Send the attorney copies of all medical reports and other documents that you receive
Do not contact or discuss your claim with any VA individual
Do not write your Congressman or Senator or contact the media about your claim.
How to become a former client
Lawyers are bound to operate
within the law and in an ethical manner. Your lawyer can and will fire
you as a client if you don't want to play by the rules.
Call or email the attorney repeatedly seeking the status of your claim after the attorney asks you not to
Demand that the attorney submit every letter and legal submittal to you for review and approval
Order the attorney to file every possible paper to “bury” the VA
Tell your attorney an untruth or “forget” to tell him or her a fact relevant to your claim
Demand that the attorney tell VA something that is untrue
Go around the attorney and call, email, or mail the VA about your claim
Miss VA appointments without reasonable excuse
Continue to write the local newspaper, Members of Congress, or the President without discussing with the attorney
Insist that the attorney take a specific legal approach despite the attorney’s best legal advice not to
Hiring an attorney is one of the hardest decisions for a veteran in
pursuing VA benefits. Hiring the right attorney is even harder.
Reason to Consider Hiring An Attorney
First things first. The only reason for a veteran to hire an attorney
is because the veteran believes that an attorney can help achieve a more
favorable result than the veteran alone would otherwise obtain.
That’s it. There is no other good reason.
The trick is, of course, to know when an attorney can get a better
result than the veteran alone or with a non-attorney representative.
Recognizing a situation where an attorney can be helpful is the first
key to successfully hiring an attorney.
When An Attorney Can Help
Attorneys are trained to advocate for their clients. That means an
attorney can help a client when the work to be done requires someone to
understand the facts of the claim, the law that applies to the claim,
and there is an opportunity to explain to a someone why the facts and
the law favor their client. In short, an attorney is can be more
helpful in some situations than in others.
What An Attorney Can Do
Explain the status of your claim, why it has been denied, and what will likely be needed to obtain an award.
Organize the facts of your claim to present the most favorable possible basis for an award of the benefit sought.
Research the rules and regulations that are relevant to your claim.
Combine the facts and law into the most compelling argument for an award of the benefit sought.
Identify the available procedural options (appeal, DRO, remand, etc.).
Receive and respond to VA letters and requests.
Prepare responses to VA and the Board of Veterans’ Appeals requests for evidence.
Prepare written arguments and briefs.
Make oral arguments at VARO hearings, before the Board, and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
What An Attorney Cannot Do
Change or create facts
Find or create missing records
Change the law, rule, or regulation
Promise to "speed things up" at the VA (may be able to get a "stalled" claim moving)
As with most other aspects of the VA benefits system, there are rules
for hiring and compensating attorneys. A basic understanding of these
rules is important for a veteran looking to have an attorney represent
them in seeking an award.
It often comes as a shock to veterans (and non-veterans as well) to
learn that a veteran cannot just go out and hire a lawyer to help him or
her file a VA benefits claim. Quite the contrary, veterans are
explicitly prohibited from paying anyone to assist them in filing or
pushing a claim through VA until VA denies the claim! Amazingly, up
until very recently, it was a federal criminal offense for an attorney
to accept compensation of any type for helping a veteran file a VA
Even more amazingly, Congress still limits a veteran’s right to hire an
attorney, supposedly to protect the veteran from evil attorneys who are
only out to steal benefits from poor, addled veterans. No, its true!
Congress continues to believe that attorneys are more of a threat to a
veteran’s benefits than the VA. (Just for fun, think of the outrage on
cable news shows that would occur if Congress limited the ability of a
gender, ethnic or racial class to hire an attorney the same way as they
do with veterans).
The key VA rules regarding a veteran hiring an attorney are summarized as follows:
An attorney cannot charge a fee for representing a veteran in a benefits
case until the veteran files a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) with the
decision denying the claim.
For an attorney to represent a veteran before the VA, the attorney was be “accredited” by VA.
A fee agreement between an attorney and a veteran must be in writing and submitted to VA.
Again, VA insists that these restrictions are to protect veterans from
unqualified attorneys. Perhaps so, but such restrictions also limit the
number of attorneys available to veterans.
Good intentions and public service aside, veterans seeking to hire an
attorney have to recognize one fundamental fact: attorneys are in
business. To survive, a business must bring in more money than it
spends. And, just like plumbers and doctors, attorneys must charge for
services to survive. It is amazing how many veterans seeking to hire an
attorney do not understand this basic fact. Recognizing the realities
of the legal business will make hiring and working with an
Not surprisingly, VA also has rules about how and how much an attorney
can charge a veteran for work before the VA (meaning the Regional Office
Board of Veterans’ Appeals). For work before the VA, attorneys
A fixed fee;
An hourly rate;
A percentage of benefits recovered (a “contingency” fee);
A combination of the above;
as long as the total fee is “reasonable.”
A fixed fee, as the name suggests, is where the attorney agrees to do a
specified task for a specific fee. The advantage to a fixed fee is that
the veteran knows
up front exactly how much he or she will pay the
attorney. Fixed fee can run from a few hundred dollars to several
thousands of dollars depending on the task. Similarly, an hourly fee is
an agreement for the attorney to charge for each hour spent on the
agreed task. An hourly rate can vary from around one hundred
per hour to several hundred dollars per hour. Hourly fees are not
common in veterans work because the fees can add up quickly and veterans
rarely have funds to pay an hourly rate if they do not get a large
The most common type of fee is the percentage or contingency fee, which
is the most favorable fee structure for most veterans in most veterans
benefits cases. This is because the attorney is only paid if (1) an
award is made and (2) there is an amount owed to the veteran at the time
of the award. The attorney is then
paid a percentage (usually between
20% and 33%) of the amount owed to the veteran when an award is
approved. This amount, also known as a “retroactive” award, is the
amount of due to the veteran from the effective date of the award up to
the date of the award. If the award was made following an appeal to the
Board and the effective date is the date the claim was originally filed
(as it is in most cases), the retroactive amount could be 3 or 4 years
of benefits. If the
case goes up to the Veterans Court and back, the
retroactive period could be ten years or more.
As an example, assume a veteran filed a claim on January 1, 2004, and
enters into a 20% contingency fee agreement with an attorney. On
January 1, 2008, the veteran is awarded a 100% disability rating. The
retroactive amount is the 100% monthly payment for the period between
January 1, 2004, and January 1, 2008 (four years), which is
approximately $120,000 at current rates. The attorney’s fee would be
20% of the $120,000 or $24,000.
Attorney Fees Before the Veterans Court
Fees for attorney work in the Veterans Court are not subject to the
restrictive VA regulations. The Court still requires that fees be
“reasonable” for the services rendered and the results obtained. The
most common fee by far is still the contingency fee.
At the Court, however, a federal law known as the Equal Access to
Justice Act or “EAJA” offers veterans who win at the Court the
opportunity to have the government pay all or part of their attorney
fees. Many attorneys will take an engagement for a case at the Court
and agree to accept the EAJA fee, if any, as payment. A veteran looking
to hire a lawyer for an appeal at the Veterans Court should discuss the
possibility of using EAJA to pay the attorney.
In addition to attorney fees, a fee agreement may also specify that the
veteran may be responsible for “costs,” which are the out-of-pocket
expenses (postage, copying, experts, etc.) paid by the attorney on
behalf of the veteran. A veteran should make sure he or she understands
who is responsible for costs before
signing a fee agreement.
Veterans are sometimes surprised by the amount of fees that result from a
contingency or hourly fee agreement and question whether the attorney
“earned” that much money. “After all, I am the one who is
hurt/sick/unable to work” is the usual logic for raising this question.
Several issues make such second-guessing
The first issue is whether the veteran received what he bargained for in
exchange for the fee. If so, the next issue is whether the attorney
received the fee that the veteran agree to pay. If this is also true,
there is not a legitimate reason to challenge the fee. Another way to
think of such situations is to consider whether the veteran would be
better off with 100% of nothing (no award) or 80% of an award. In any
event, the time for questioning a fee agreement is before it is entered
into, not after the award is obtained.
That is not to say that a fee agreement cannot be challenged because it
was unreasonable, unfair, or improperly used to the attorney’s
attorneys will adjust their fee if the situation
resolved itself without the expected effort. Many times a disagreement
can be resolved by discussing the issue
with the attorney. For cases
where the veteran still feels a fee was unfair, VA has a process for
veterans to file complaints and challenge fee agreements. In fact, for
fees administered by VA, the agency holds the attorney’s fee for several
months or until the veteran tells VA he or she has no objection to
payment of a fee by VA.
Finding An Attorney
Only after you understand (1) what you want done, (2) what an attorney
can do for you, and (3) what it should cost you, it's time to find some
There are a only a small number full-time veterans’ attorneys. There
are other attorneys who handle veterans’ cases on a part-time or
In addition, other attorneys volunteer their services
through organizations that match veterans with attorneys willing to
work on a pro bono (without charging a fee) basis. For all that, there
are pitiful few competent and experienced veterans attorneys out there.
The low number of attorneys is somewhat balanced by the national nature
of the practice. In other words, it is not necessary for an attorney to
be located near a claimant to properly represent them before the VA.
Most veteran attorneys rarely meet clients personally because the
clients are located all over the country. Distance is not a problem, as
a good attorney will routinely communicate with clients by mail,
telephone and email, as events develop.
Regardless of where a veteran lives, the best source to find an attorney
is a recommendation from a friend or other veteran that has previously
attorney in a VA matter. Nothing is better than a personal
recommendation from someone you know and trust. But keep in mind that
even the best and most knowledgeable attorney does not always win and
even the worst prepared and disagreeable attorney will get an award
If a personal recommendation is not available, the next best things are
recommendations from other veterans on websites and blogs such as this VAWatchdog.com, and The Veterans Voice.
If you are comfortable on the web, a search on Google or
similar search engine for “veteran’s attorney” will bring you all sorts
of entries and advertisements for attorneys practicing in this area.
Your state or local bar association may also have a referral service
where attorneys seeking veteran clients list themselves.
Another potential source of information about veterans’ attorneys is
contact by an attorney looking for clients. Some attorneys advertise
through direct mail. Veterans with new appeals in the Veterans Court
often receive many offers of representation. Whether you agree or
disagree with such tactics, a veteran can
find an attorney by responding
to these contacts. However, as with responding to any other
advertisement of services, you should carefully investigate and
interview an attorney identified in this way.
Most active veterans attorneys have their own websites and many
advertise on other veterans-related websites. The local “yellow pages”
may contain advertisements from veterans attorneys. Several
organizations, such as the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
(http://www.vetapp.gov/practitioners) and the National Organization of
Veterans Advocates (NOVA) (http://www.vetadvocates.com) also maintain
lists of attorneys available for veterans’ cases. In addition, the VA
lists attorneys and non-attorney representatives that have completed the
VA accreditation process in a database searchable by city, state and
zip code (http://www.va.gov/ogc/apps/accreditation/index.html).
veterans meeting specific requirements, the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono
Program (http://www.vetsprobono.org) may be able to find an attorney
for veterans with a case on appeal to the Veterans Court. Finally,
local or national offices of the major veterans’ service organizations
(such as the VFW, DAV, VVA) may be able to make suggestions.
The expense of hiring a lawyer.
I hear it a lot, "Jim. I don't have any money. I can't afford a lawyer!"
You're about to be pleasantly surprised when I tell you that even if
you're dead broke, you can afford a great lawyer.
I talk a lot in generalities. There are few absolutes in life and that applies to hiring an attorney as much as anywhere else.
speaking...attorneys who take on cases for veterans like appeals to the
VA are strictly controlled by law as to how they can take a fee from
In civil and other cases
the attorney may ask for a flat fee or an hourly fee or almost any other
condition of payment that you two agree on.
The majority of an
attorney's work for you in VA cases will usually be as a contingency
fee. That implies that you agree to pay a percentage of any money that
arises from the case if you win. If you don't win, you don't pay unless
you've agreed to pay some expenses.
I like the contingency
fee agreement. If you don't win the lawyer doesn't get paid. That's a
great incentive for your attorney to work very hard for you.
This is all too often a
potential source of friction between the attorney and the client. I urge
the attorney and the veteran client to be very open and up front about
what the fee will be (usually around 20% of any retroactive pay) and any
circumstance that may alter the way the case is handled.
One issue that crops up
may be that the attorney only has the case for 4 months and VA makes a
sudden decision to award the full benefit to the veteran. If the
retroactive pay is in the 6 figure range, the 20% paid to the attorney
may suddenly seem exorbitant for the amount of time the lawyer has
actually spent working on the case.
If there is a potential
for that to happen, the veteran client and the attorney should make
agree as to what will occur long before it happens.
Hiring a lawyer to help
you with your case shouldn't intimidate you. Speak openly about your
concerns. Talk freely about finances from the very beginning. Speak to
as many attorneys as you feel you need to so that you're happy from the
When you do retain a
lawyer, I advise that you immediately stop listening to anyone else
about your claim. There are opinions from everyone and then there are
advocates who you've made a contract with and who will work hard to
protect your interests. "Too many cooks spoil the broth", the old saying
goes. That's true of the approach to your claim too.
Be realistic. Lawyers
don't come to the party wearing Superman (or Superwoman) capes. Your
lawyer is as frustrated by the system as you are. Your lawyer can't make
VA move any faster than VA wants to move on your claim. Calling your
attorney every two weeks asking for an update or trying to find out the
status of your claim wastes everyone's time.
What your attorney will
do for you is to watch the process for the slightest wrongdoing by VA
and ensure that you are treated fairly. You may not see it as it happens
but your lawyer will work hard to earn every penny of that contingency
fee. He or she will remain alert for any opportunities to maximize your
benefit award and alert you to other benefits you may deserve.
I recommend that every
veteran who is appealing any denial give thought to retaining a lawyer.
It's much simpler to have that attorney in your corner for a DRO hearing
than it will be 5 years down the road when you're heading to CAVC.
Don't be shy. These professionals want to work for you. Hire one and get out of the way. You'll be happy you did.
Selecting Your Attorney
After you have put together a list of at least two or three attorneys
and their contact information, it is time for you to interview the
attorneys. Many veterans make a big mistake at this point – they speak
to one attorney and hire him or her without considering any others.
They do so without making sure that the attorney they select is right
for them and their case. The result can sometimes be worse than if no
attorney was hired and always results in more stress than necessary. So
prepare yourself to find the best attorney for you and your case.
To do this, you must prepare yourself to have a productive information exchange with the attorney. This means, as a minimum:
Organize the key documents in your case, beginning with the last
correspondence from the VA and including any rating decisions, Statement
of the Case, Board or Court decisions and any important records or
Prepare a short (one page at most) summary of what your claim is, and the evidence that supports the claim
Know where your claim is in the VA system (VARO denial, NOD filed, at the Board, at the Court, etc.)
Once you are prepared, review the lists of what an attorney can and
cannot do. If you find yourself getting ready to ask for something an
attorney cannot do, stop. If during your discussion, the attorney
promises to do something that he cannot do, move on to someone else.
One other issue worth discussing is the charging of a "consultation fee"
or otherwise requiring a veteran to pay something up front for an
attorney to review a case. No reputable attorney of which the authors
are aware charge such a fee. If an attorney requires a fee to review
your case, our suggestion is to move on - the attorney may not be doing
anything wrong, but there are plenty of attorneys that will review a
case without charge.
Only when you are prepared should you contact the attorneys on your
list. If you decide to telephone the attorney, be prepared to discuss
your case, not just leave a message – many attorneys will take a call
from a potential new client even when they are busy. It is wasteful of
everybody’s time to have an attorney’s attention and not be able to
discuss your case.
If you are comfortable with email, many attorneys prefer to communicate
in this way because they can check their email while away from the
office and on breaks during the day. Also, an email acts as a record of
the contact and the information exchanged – this avoids
misunderstandings and errors in note taking during phone calls. An
initial email containing or attaching the short description of your case
and the key information you prepared above goes a long way towards
getting a busy attorney to respond. Also, when the attorney does
respond, he or she has your email to work from during the follow-up
Things to do when interviewing an attorney:
Do tell the attorney why you are calling (for example: “I am looking
for an attorney to represent me in my appeal of a Board decision denying
my PTSD claim.”)
Do explain the basic facts supporting your claim
Do ask the attorney to describe his or her VA claims experience
Do ask the attorney whether he or she has handled similar claims
Do ask the attorney if he or she is accredited by VA
Do ask the attorney what type of fee arrangements are possible
Do take ‘no’ for an answer – if the attorney declines to take your case,
you should spend your time trying to find an attorney that will, not
trying to convince the first attorney of the merits of your case
Don’t expect the attorney to agree to take your case after one call or
email – a good attorney often needs to review the facts and law further
after discussing the matter with you.
Don’t ask the attorney to “give you odds” on getting as award – no case
is a sure thing and any claim can be denied despite the best efforts of
Don’t try to describe your entire military history in the first call or email – focus on the event relevant to your claim.
Don’t argue with the attorney about what the law is or why the law is
“wrong” – if you disagree with the attorney’s view of the law, it is
better to find another attorney. If you really believe that you know
the law better than the attorneys you interview – perhaps you don’t.
Don’t take one attorney’s decision to pass on your case as the end of
the matter – but if multiple attorneys decline representation, it may be
time to take a hard look at your claim
If an attorney tells you he is not interested in your case, politely ask
for a reason. Most attorneys will at least tell you whether it is
because they do not see a reasonable chance of success or whether they
are too busy or not familiar with that type of claim. Whatever the
reason, do not take one attorney’s opinion as the final word. Every
attorney has a different view of a case and often another attorney will
take a case that has been rejected elsewhere. Some attorneys pride
themselves with taking the “hard” cases that no one else wants.
Engaging An Attorney
Once you have identified the attorney you want to hire you have to reach
agreement with the attorney on the terms and conditions of the
engagement. A veteran should not be shy in requesting, reviewing, and
asking questions about:
The scope of the representation (what the attorney will do)
How the attorney fee and cost will be calculated (how and how much the attorney will be paid)
What the attorney expects you to do (provide documents, not contact VA, etc.)
What the attorney will do for you (communicate with VA, prepare all documents, attend hearings, etc.)
What happens if you fire the attorney
What happens if the attorney fires you
Whatever else, do not enter into an engagement or sign a fee agreement
until you understand everything in the agreement. A good attorney will
not have a problem answering your questions.
The Attorney-Client Relationship
Once your fee agreement is effective, you are in an “attorney-client”
relationship. Among other things, this means you and your attorney must
live up to the terms and conditions in the fee agreement. In
particular, a client must be open and forthright regarding the facts and
evidence relevant to the claim(s). Withholding information or failing
to be completely truthful is the most common failing of veterans in
dealing with their attorneys. For attorneys, the most common complaint
is the failure to communicate with clients and keep them up to date with
The attorney-client relationship can and should be professional and
rewarding to both parties. In the VA system, such relationships can
last for years or decades. The attorney and client should work to keep
it a positive relationship.
Respect the Relationship
It is very safe to assume that every veterans attorney is busy and that
his or her time is very precious to them and their clients. The surest
way to get fired by an attorney is to waste his or her time.
It often comes as a surprise to clients, but an attorney can fire a
client for failing to do the things promised in the fee agreement or
becoming an intolerable distraction from other client’s work. An
attorney has a duty to work diligently for a client and to communicate
on developments affecting the client’s claim. A veteran client should
recognize that there are times in the VA process where there is
absolutely nothing to report – and that repeatedly contacting the
attorney will not change the situation.
Free Legal Help For Veterans
We know that veterans law attorneys are available to tackle our VA
claims problems. But veterans have many other legal issues to contend
with every day.
There is help available!
Frequent readers of VAWatchdog know that the Stateside Legal web site is a terrific resource to find help and solutions to the daily problems that we often face.
But, did you know that there's an ongoing effort to bring help directly
to you? You may be able to meet an attorney right in your VA hospital.
There are currently 40 legal service providers in 36 VA medical
facilities, including VA Medical Centers, Outpatient Clinics and Vet
Centers. This is all being set up by the VA Office of General Council.
1967, Pine Tree Legal Assistance has advocated for the rights of
Mainers with low incomes, including veterans, by providing advice,
information, and legal representation in civil proceedings. While some
national data about legal need among veterans is available through
CHALENG surveys administered by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs,
to date no organization in the state of Maine has studied the specific
legal needs of its veteran population. To gain a more accurate
understanding of this issue, Pine Tree Legal collaborated with the Maine
VISTA Project to survey veterans and social service providers in Maine
about veteran legal issues.
Most Maine veterans surveyed indicated they experienced a legal problem in the past 12 months;
* Veterans are unlikely to contact legal services themselves; and
* Social service providers self-reported that they have a limited understanding of most legal issues.
the most effective response to these issues will require social service
providers to fully understand the current met and unmet legal needs of
the veteran population.
Legal aid is an essential partner in addressing
Equal Justice Works will place 36 Lawyers and 200 Law Students across the United States, supported by AmeriCorps
frequently face complicated legal problems stemming from physical and
mental injuries sustained during military service. When these legal
problems go unresolved, they can quickly multiply, creating
insurmountable barriers to successful civilian life. An annual survey
by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs consistently shows that legal
needs are among the top unmet needs of homeless and low-income
veterans. Lawyers play key roles in resolving the complex and
intertwined legal issues veterans face. The ultimate goal of the Veteran
Legal Corps is to improve the lives of veterans – once relied upon to
serve their country as members of the armed forces – and enable them to
return to civilian life as successful community members.
How To Retain A Veterans Law Attorney;
A Lesson From Drew Early, Esq.
I've compiled a little list of things that potential clients have
said to me that I take to be warning signs for any veterans advocate. I
provide them for the education and entertainment of the Watchdog
Some may laugh, some may be offended; I simply provide it
so the typical Watchdog reader knows what might not sound good if they
call an attorney.
Drew, You'll really want my case, its high profile...
(Sorry, that does nothing for me and might do a lot to dissuade me.)
Take my case. Although I'm already rated at 100%, I'm entitled to back
pay at that rate back to the day I left service...You'll make lots of
(And how does that work?)
Drew, I have a great case
here that involves an interesting question of law. Although I am not an
attorney, I have fully researched case law and I have two suitcases of
legal opinions and a dumpster-full of newspaper clippings that support
(Amateur VA advocacy is kinda like amateur brain
surgery--you might get good at it, but there's a whole lot of peril in
getting to that point)
Drew, Let me tell you my story, do you have the time....
(Well, actually, I don't--I have to work for a living so I need you to keep it short and to the point).
I need a good VA attorney. Although I had (a well known veterans attorney) representing me, he didn't
like me and did a poor job on my case.
Drew, Although it isn't in my records....
(And maybe its not there for a good reason....)
Drew, I was part of a top-secret.....
oh. Honestly had one vet that was on a top secret mission, so he said,
as a finance clerk. The evidence of record and the National Archives
were not supportive of his claim; neither was I since he said he was
Army and the facts he relayed made no sense whatsover to this old, beat
up retired Army Airborne troop).
Drew, I am making a VA claim for
disability in order to get affirmation of my injuries, even though the
particular disability doesn't rise to a compensable level.
(Sorry, I'm really not in the affirmation business).
Drew, VA has put the word out in my case and I can't get a doctor to write anything on my behalf...
(In other words, you can't find a doctor that isn't sticking by what he or she sees in the records and upon examination...)
Drew, I got offended and wasn't treated well by the VA.
(Stand in line and join the club brother--happens to me a good 2-3 times a week).