As an attorney that handles veterans disability claims, I frequently get the question, “Why hire an attorney on my veterans disability claim when I can use a VSO for free?” As a veteran’s disability attorney, I appreciate the many VSOs who help disabled veterans navigate the grueling VA claim process to submit solid claims that result in fair ratings. We refer many vets to VSO’s when it makes sense.
However, I also hear the questions circulating among veterans about the whole “Attorneys vs VSO” issue when it comes to disability benefits. Perhaps the most troubling is the notion that it’s outrageous and unethical for a lawyer to charge a fee to represent a veteran’s disability claim—especially when the veteran can use a VSO for free.
I believe I understand this confusion and would like to take a moment to speak to this and perhaps bring about a better understanding.
Pre-2007: It was David vs Goliath. Really.
Until 2007, veterans were effectively denied by law access to qualified attorneys to represent them prior to exhausting all their administrative appeals.
In many minds, this was the federal government purposefully preventing veterans from getting effective representation on monetary claims against the government. Even though the government had many attorneys on its side, disabled veterans were essentially barred from legal representation. Indeed, veterans wished they had the ability to hire attorneys to help them fight back when the VA handed them low ratings or unfair claim denials.
Prior to 2007, many law firms would do charity (pro bono) work for veterans on an occasional basis. But law firms need a paycheck to keep the lights on, pay secretaries, paralegals, rent and more. So these law firms might take only one or two cases a year.
Such a scant caseload barely scratched the surface of the legal and medical complexities of many VA claims. Lawyers were not able to develop the skill and expertise necessary to effectively represent veterans. Would you want a brain surgeon that did one or two surgeries per year?
2007: Congress Changes the Law and Veterans Can Hire Attorneys
At the urging of veterans and veteran’s advocacy groups, the law preventing vets from hiring experienced attorneys was changed in 2007. Veterans could now hire qualified attorneys to represent them, and earlier in the process. In short, veterans had access to lawyers who really knew how to help them even in the most complex cases. This has dramatically increased the success rate of how many veterans are able to win their claims.
The Government Regulates How Much Attorneys Can Charge Veterans.
It is important to note that attorneys can’t just charge anything they please in representing veterans. All attorney fees must be approved by the VA. Attorneys usually agree to charge a 20% contingency fee on a veteran’s back due benefits. What it really means is that the attorney agrees to work for free unless and until the case can be won. Often this can take many months or even years. In short, every vet with a meritorious claim can afford to hire a qualified attorney.
Is a 20% contingency fee reasonable? Put this in context of real-world contingency fee percentages: medical malpractice lawyers charge a 45-50% contingency fee, car wreck attorneys charge 33-40%, and even SSDI attorneys charge claimants 25%.
Is 20% a bit high if little work is done by the attorney? First, it is difficult to have true grasp of the amount of work an attorney puts into a VA claim. As stated above, frequently these cases can take many months if not years to resolve.
Second, the lawyer knowing the one thing that needs to be done to win, is priceless. Think of the story of the engineer that charged $1000 to turn one screw to fix a vital piece of equipment. $1 to turn the screw, $999 to know which screw to turn.
Third, at the end of the veterans claim, if the 20% seems really high relative to the attorney’s work, the veteran can contest the amount of attorney fees that the VA withholds to pay the attorney.
Finally, it helps to understand the little-known history of attorney fees in Veterans compensation claims.
What’s the difference between VSO and attorney representation? It’s more than you think.
Veterans have always had the ability to use a VSO for free. And yes, to the veteran it’s as though the VSO works for free. But a bargain does not mean it’s a good buy. You get what you pay for.
Many VSO’s do admirable work, but many do not. VSO representatives are salaried employees who may work full or part time. Some Veterans Service Organizations are recognized by the VA for the purpose of preparation, presentation, and prosecution of claims under laws administered by the VA; yet, some are NOT recognized by the VA for these purposes. They are all overworked and none are lawyers versed in complex veterans law.
The “unpaid” VSO has no particular duty to the individual veteran and has no financial motivation to produce results. Whether you win your claim or are underrated or denied altogether, your VSO gets paid his or her salary at the end of the day. Your result does not impact them financially. Simply put, you and your VSO are not in sync.
An attorney’s duty to their client is absolute and allowing the VA-regulated contingency fee puts the attorney’s interest and the client’s interest in sync with each other.
That is price performance. If you’re going to pay a Veterans claims attorney then that attorney must be able to bring additional value to your case.
The right reason to hire me or any veteran’s lawyer is that you believe we can help you get a better decision from the VA on your claim that has either been (1) denied or (2) underrated.
And just as any person would in any legal matter, you look beyond the attorney’s VA accreditation. The last avenue of attack you have, and where many of the more complex cases land, is the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) and the federal court system.
- You want an attorney with years of experience and a successful record of litigating VA appeals at the CAVC. You absolutely have to be an attorney to bring a claim there.
- Your lawyer should actively practice Veterans Disability Law having a thorough knowledge of VA case law.
- Add to that, the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) states that, if you hire a lawyer at the CAVC level and win, the government must pay your legal fees. In short, the lawyer takes no fee from your back pay lump sum.
When Command of Complex Veterans Law Is Needed
Straightforward claims are one thing. They are VSO territory. Similarly, there will always be multidimensional and difficult claims that need an experienced attorney’s representation.
Certain cases involve significant medical impairment and vocational complexities. For example, Total Disability Individual Unemployability (TDIU) claims must prove the severity of your impairments and how they prevent you from earning a living. An award of TDIU often comes down to the sufficiency (or insufficiency) of the evidence you give to the VA.
Then you have multi-issue claims, PTSD, TBI, military sexual trauma—these and other claims require skilled and experienced attention and resources that are frankly beyond the scope of VSOs. Decisions issued in all of these claims have significant effect on the lives of these veterans.
For Tomorrow’s Veterans
A most important contribution happens when, through dogged representation and litigation, attorneys’ collective efforts ultimately culminate in meaningful changes in case law.
This is a pivotal reason many lawyers undergo VA accreditation; believe it or not, we desire to improve every future veteran’s chance of getting his or her swift and deserved disability benefits from the government, without yet another fight.
Is a VA Accredited Attorney Worth It?
Most veterans are justifiably frustrated and angry at a VA system that seems to only let them down. David must sling rocks at Goliath’s bureaucracy over and over again. It is easy to blame attorneys who appear in some way to be part of this problem.
I can tell you that, as a whole, accredited veterans attorneys are not parasites trying to swindle veterans. Our goal is to assist our disabled troops as skilled communicators and litigators. And we give them 100% dedication in doing so.
Here at Marc Whitehead & Associates, we are vested in veterans disability law. Our zealous commitment is to our clients who have served our country. When every day, week and month counts until your disabilities are properly rated and compensation is received, having our level of dedication, experience and knowledge on your side can change the game.
Thank you for hearing me,