FOUNDED: February 9, 2001
|11-28-2007, 02:47 PM||#1|
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Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: Owyhee County, Idaho
Lawyers step to help Vets Gratis
> USA Today
> November 27, 2007
> Pg. 4
> Lawyers Step Up To Help Veterans Gratis
> Volunteers hope expertise will speed disability claims, improve outcome
> By Laura Parker, USA Today
> WASHINGTON - The scene resembled Hollywood's version of how a
> multibillion-dollar legal deal might be negotiated. Big-name corporate
> law firm. Posh conference room, with a conference table so large 70
> attorneys fit easily around it. Video technicians, hovering nearby, beam
> the meeting to other big law firms from Boston to Seattle.
> Yet there was no deal to cut. Instead, the high-powered lawyers were
> getting a tutorial in the arcane vagaries of veterans law.
> "This could be the VA's worst nightmare," Bart Stichman, one of the
> organizers, enthused from the podium. "Hundreds of attorneys from around
> the country providing legal service to veterans for free."
> The recent gathering at Sidley Austin, a firm with 1,700 lawyers around
> the globe, is part of a growing effort to provide free legal help to
> thousands of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who are trying
> to win disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
> "There are 100,000 veterans seeking benefits, and too many of them are
> waiting too long to get them," says Ron Abrams, who, with Stichman,
> directs the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a non-profit group
> in Washington spearheading the effort. "These lawyers are going to treat
> these veterans the way they would treat their corporate clients."
> The approach marks the first time since the Civil War that attorneys
> have been recruited in large numbers to represent veterans. The lawyers
> hope their legal expertise will speed consideration of claims and result
> in better benefits for veterans, Stichman says. More than 50 of the
> largest law firms in the USA and more than 400 attorneys have signed up.
> Stichman and Abrams hope to start assigning veterans to the attorneys
> early next month.
> Law schools join cause
> Amanda Smith, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based firm Morgan Lewis,
> says many of the participating lawyers are Vietnam veterans and "are
> appalled at the circumstances that they find veterans in today."
> Besides the push by big law firms, law schools in states such as the
> Carolinas, Virginia, Delaware, Michigan and Illinois also are offering
> free services to veterans.
> Craig Kabatchnick, who worked as a VA appellate attorney from 1990 until
> 1995, launched a clinic last January for veterans at North Carolina
> Central University's law school, where he now teaches.
> "We had all kinds of veterans who were very disabled, litigating against
> trained attorneys like myself who were defending the VA," Kabatchnick
> says. The VA would "win" if the claim was denied, Kabatchnick says. "Did
> we litigate to win? Absolutely. In cases where the veteran was
> representing himself, the win ratio was very high."
> Paul Hutter, the VA's general counsel, says its attorneys have "an
> ethical obligation to fairly and justly" review claims and settle
> "meritorious cases quickly."
> "Our job is to ensure that veterans get the benefits allowed them by
> law," he says in an e-mail.
> Disability claims have increased from 578,773 in fiscal 2000 to 838,141
> this year, according to VA figures. There are about 407,000 pending. The
> average processing time is 177 days, the VA says.
> Change in law lifted restrictions
> Traditionally, veterans have represented themselves or sought assistance
> from a service organization, such as the American Legion or the Veterans
> of Foreign Wars. But many of the caseworkers in those groups are
> overloaded with cases, Stichman says, and sometimes one volunteer
> oversees 1,000 veterans' claims.
> The approach has not led to quick compensation for veterans. Evidence
> supporting a veteran's claim - medical records or letters from
> colleagues - is not always submitted with the original claim. When that
> evidence is added later, it can lead to reversals or requests for
> reconsideration. That can add more than a year to the appeals process,
> the VA says.
> The Board of Veterans' Appeals either reverses or orders reconsideration
> of decisions made by VA regional offices 56% of the time, according to
> an analysis of VA figures by Stichman's group. Congress has long kept
> attorneys at arm's length from the veterans' disability process. Until
> last June, when federal law changed, paid attorneys could not work on
> cases until after a final decision by the Board of Veterans' Appeals.
> The VA is now considering regulations that would require all attorneys
> to pass a test in order to qualify to handle veterans' claims, according
> to Phil Budahn, a department spokesman.
> Service organizations, including the Disabled American Veterans and
> Veterans of Foreign Wars, vigorously fought the change in law. They are
> now pushing to repeal the law and support requiring a test, arguing that
> lawyers could turn what is supposed to be a non-adversarial process into
> a litigious one.
> "The fear was lawyers will dominate, and they'll ruin everything," says
> Thomas Reed, a law professor at Widener University in Wilmington, Del.,
> who began offering free legal services to veterans in 1997.
> Lawyers not the cure-all
> Joe Violante, national legislative director of the Disabled American
> Veterans, which represents 1.3 million veterans, says trained volunteers
> from the service organizations are far more experienced at representing
> veterans' claims than the newly recruited lawyers.
> "If the veteran is under the impression that an attorney is going to get
> their claim through faster, there's no proof of that," he says.
> Ron Flagg, a Sidley attorney involved in the pro bono veterans' project,
> says there are so many claims that the system is overwhelmed.
> "Lawyers are not the cure to all ills," he says. "But this is a problem
> where lawyers can be helpful."
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