Yet there was no deal to cut. Instead, the high-powered lawyers were getting a tutorial in the arcane vagaries of veterans law.
â€œThis could be the VAâ€™s worst nightmare,â€ Bart Stichman, one of the organizers, enthused from the podium. â€œHundreds of attorneys from around the country providing legal service to veterans for free.â€
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
â€œThere are 100,000 veterans seeking benefits, and too many of them are waiting too long to get them,â€ says Ron Abrams, who, with Stichman, directs the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a non-profit group in
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
Law schools join cause
Amanda Smith, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based firm Morgan Lewis, says many of the participating lawyers are
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 Universityâ€™s law school, where he now teaches.
â€œWe had all kinds of veterans who were very disabled, litigating against trained attorneys like myself who were defending the VA,â€ Kabatchnick says. The VA would â€œwinâ€ if the claim was denied, Kabatchnick says. â€œDid we litigate to win? Absolutely. In cases where the veteran was representing himself, the win ratio was very high.â€
Paul Hutter, the VAâ€™s general counsel, says its attorneys have â€œan ethical obligation to fairly and justlyâ€ review claims and settle â€œmeritorious cases quickly.â€
â€œOur job is to ensure that veterans get the benefits allowed them by law,â€ 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 veteransâ€™ claims.
The approach has not led to quick compensation for veterans. Evidence supporting a veteranâ€™s claim â€” medical records or letters from colleagues â€” 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 Stichmanâ€™s group. Congress has long kept attorneys at arms-length from the veteransâ€™ 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 Veteransâ€™ Appeals. The VA is now considering regulations that would require all attorneys to pass a test in order to qualify to handle veteransâ€™ 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.
â€œThe fear was lawyers will dominate, and theyâ€™ll ruin everything,â€ 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 veteransâ€™ claims than the newly recruited lawyers.
â€œIf the veteran is under the impression that an attorney is going to get their claim through faster, thereâ€™s no proof of that,â€ he says.
Ron Flagg, a Sidley attorney involved in the pro bono veteransâ€™ project, says there are so many claims that the system is overwhelmed.
â€œLawyers are not the cure to all ills,â€ he says. â€œBut this is a problem where lawyers can be helpful.â€
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