Love Your Lawyer Day VA Duty to Assist

Yeah, I wish they came up with a better title for this day.  It’s a little too smooshy for me.

But that’s where my complaints end.

I feel like I speak for a good number of attorneys when I say “This day is a long time coming.”

So I’m damn proud to help spread the word about what this day is all about: reminding the world of the positive public image and the good things that lawyers do….every single day.

Folks Love to Hate Lawyers.

Lawyers rank pretty low on people’s list of professions that they respect – well, at least until they need one.

In the not-too-distant past, I had to hire a lawyer myself….. though I had a tough time writing checks with so many zeroes, this particular attorney changed the course of  my family’s life for the better, resolving a problem that only a professional attorney could resolve.  For that, there are not enough “thank you’s”. 

Not only are we ranked low on the list of respected professions, we are the butt of jokes that – while relatively benign – are actually quite demoralizing.

I consciously chose to become a lawyer – not so that I would  get rich – but so that I could use my skills and talents to help level  the playing field in a world where the hard-workers, the disabled, and the poorest among us are often taken advantage of day in and day out.

And hell, even if I did become a lawyer to get rich, what’s wrong with that?  We do live in America, right?  If Mark Zuckerburg can get rich connecting us to all of our old stalker ex-girlfriends and boyfriends, why the heck can’t a lawyer get rich changing people’s lives?

Regardless, I busted my ass to get this license – ask any of my classmates from law school who was studying while they were out drinking.

I ran up almost $100,000 in debt to pay for this education.

I  sat for 2 bar exams – passed in both states the first time – apparently one was not enough.

And I put every penny I’ve ever saved into building a law firm that actually  changes individual people’s lives.

This is something I am very proud of – and something I will continue to do until, well, until Adam Wirth or Douglas Coomer shoot me in the face or come after my family.

Who are these folks, you might ask?

Read the kind of trash that they write online about me – these are not one-off posts. And they are NOT the only Veterans writing them.

Adam Wirth (who claims to have served in the 10th Special Forces Group….yet doesn’t realize the damage he is doing as a public voice for this dedicated group of warriors) seems to derive great pleasure in a pattern of posts like this – trying to bully me out of the profession I love:

AdamEWirth_9-23-2015

 

Screenshot 2015-11-05 13.56.17

 

Or, how about this threat from a Veteran in the Deep South who (in addition to this post) wrote a frightening email about coming to my home and office to carry out a very specific threat:

Douglas Cooner - 9-23-2015

Or, saddest of all….reading a decision by a Veterans Court Judge and fellow member of our profession who included a little poem about his perception that lawyers are in it for the money.

While I have been really angry about this poem in the past, the Judge who wrote it is a really nice guy who is thought highly of and who, I’m told, has done good things for people.  Today, I would just love to hear an apology from the Judge for the harm this poem did our profession.  

The point of all that isn’t  to get you to feel sorry for me or any lawyer.

Good lord, who could feel sorry for me?

The law has led me to a great family, a great education, enabled me to help family, friends and strangers…..

….no, don’t feel sorry for me. The law has given me a good life.

Don’t even  stop telling lawyer jokes – hearing them always reminds me that the only way to make them “not funny” is to make them “not true”.

After all, people don’t laugh at jokes that don’t have an element of truth in them.

I would, however, appreciate it if dangerous men like Messrs. Wirth and Comer took a step back from their angry ledge and stop threatening my wife and kids.

Instead, I want to get you to think different about lawyers.

So, today, I want to talk to you about a few things that have changed in the world of Veterans Benefits – things that Veterans might still be fighting for but for the work of attorneys.

The list below aren’t the biggest things lawyers have done.  They aren’t necessarily the most important – although a couple of them are.

Some of them have had a tremendous impact “on the ground”.

Some were just the first domino in a chain that is still falling.

Attorneys like Ken Carpenter – who paved the way for the rest of us by pounding away at the VA for 30+ years….when nobody else was doing it.  I might mention that, to this day, Ken gives tirelessly of his time and energy training hundreds of advocates new to the work of representing Veterans through the organization he helped found: the National Organization of Veterans Advocates (NOVA).  A true hero that man is.

….attorneys like the gang up at Chisholm, Chisholm and Kilpatrick who not only fight for tens of thousands of Veterans, but are always willing to talk to newer attorneys about how to build a Veterans Law practice, or how to structure a legal argument in a case.

….attorneys like  Joe Moore, who is up at 3am fighting for Veterans so that he can be available to fight for his kids during the day.

….attorneys like Bart Stichman, Ron Abrams, Amy Odom, Louis George (and countless others) in the army over at NVLSP.

…..attorneys like Professors Allen and Simcox at Stetson Law’s Veterans Clinic or Professor Drake at the ‘Missou’ School of Law Veterans Clinic (and dozens more like them) who are out there training a whole new generation of advocates.

….attorneys like Ben Krause who has given the gift of education and work to more disabled Veterans than I think even he realizes.

…..attorneys like Judge Greenberg at the CAVC and Judge Ridgway at the BVA who spend their days combing through books older than our grandparents looking for solutions to the Veterans Backlogs and Appeal delays.

By the way….check out Judge Ridgway’s new book “Glimpses of the New Veteran” – click here – it’s a compelling read.

….. attorneys like Doug Friedman who is finding new and creative ways to reach out to Veterans in Alabama.

Even still, by choosing these examples, I overlook plenty more attorneys that  are in the fight for Veterans Justice and Due Process every single day …. and who won’t or never do get the glory or public recognition they deserve.

As an aside, if you are an attorney representing Veterans who feels like the public eye has passed you over, shoot me a message – let’s see if we can’t shine the light of day on the battles you are fighting and winning.

I bet I could come up with 500+ attorneys that have opened a door for Veterans just since 2007 alone….and I know I’ve left some big and important names off this list…. so I mean no slight if I didn’t mention you.

Truth be told, I only learned about “Love Your Lawyer” Day 8 hours ago ….and its been a while since I put a 1500+ word post out in just 8 hours.

The reality is this – as shown in the tiny handful of examples below – when Veterans finally force the VA to truly focus on providing benefits and assistance so the Veteran can reintegrate to civilian life, it will be because they forced Congress to allow Veterans to have what every criminal in the US has a natural right to: a lawyer.

1) Lawyers are Tearing Down the VA’s Fictional Narrative about Agent Orange.

Slowly, over the years, lawyers have been tearing down the fictional narrative that the VA has written about Agent Orange.

From showing that Agent Orange found its way into the inland waterways, or was used on the Korean DMZ, or sprayed along the perimeter in Thailand, lawyers and Veterans advocacy groups have slowly chipped away at the VA’s Junk Science belief that Agent Orange stops the minute it hits a body of water…..or that it has figured out how to target only certain units in South Korea….or, in Thailand, is magically chained to the perimeter fences.

The latest victory – the work of  experienced Veterans Advocates Matt Hill and Michael Wildhaber – has opened a gaping hole in the Brown and Blue Water separation.

In the Gray case, these advocates argued that the VA’s definition of “Open Water” ports (into which Agent Orange apparently refused to seep) was arbitrary … the Court agreed and even as we speak, there is a move afoot to open up presumptive Agent Orange exposure to a significant distance off the shore of the Republic of Vietnam.

So, if you are a Blue Water Navy Veteran suffering from the health consequences of being poisoned by your own government, send Matt and Mike a thank you note.

Or better yet, join their fight..they can use an army right now.

2) Lawyers stopped the Oppression of the VA Frauduciary Program.

For years, we’ve all known that the VA Frauduciary Program is the VA’s Mos Eisely – a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

The VA Frauduciary Program would arbitrarily decide a Veteran couldn’t manage their own money, give it to a shuckster or hack for a commission (I’m convinced for kick-backs), and then leave the Vet out in the streets without access to money, medicine, food, shelter and often clothing.

Thanks to the work of 2 die-hard Veterans Advocates who forced the VA to comply with Due Process before it assigns a fiduciary and takes the Veteran’s money….and the VA has to give the Veteran the right to appeal its decision to the BVA and ultimately the Veterans Court.

While that has not purged the poison from the Frauduciary Program – atrocities occur in this program every single day – it was 2 attorneys who kicked open the doors of the Courthouse to cast light on what the VA wants kept in the shadows.

That’s more than Congress could ever do – for all their talk of supporting Veterans, Congress is pretty damn useless when it comes to walking the talk.

3) Lawyers Make the Duty to Assist MEAN something. 

We’ve talked about the Duty to Assist here on the Veterans Law Blog before – and I caution you not to confuse it with actual assistance.

Before Vazquez-Flores, though, the Duty to Assist was nothing more than a delusional fairy-tale: the VA just had to send you a letter giving you notice about something, and the BVA rubber-stamped that notice as a fulfillment of the Duty to Assist.

Attorneys Ken Carpenter, Richard James, and others teamed up and pushed back.  They won an early  battle in the (still ongoing) war to make the VA’s Duty to Assist actually mean something.

As a result of what these attorneys did in the Vazquez-Flores case, this is now an absolute truth:

“The VA must address the evidentiary requirements for each claim under VA consideration in a notice document directed, at least in part, to that claim.”

In other words, the VA must tell you what evidence would support your claim.

If you won at the CAVC or the BVA because the VA failed to tell you what you had to prove, send Kathy, Ken and Richard a thank you note…this victory has opened a door to benefits for more Veterans than you and I can count.

4) It Ain’t Over ’til the VA Does its Job.

The VA used to have this belief that when they issued a final decision on a claim for a particular condition, any prior claims that were still pending (unadjudicated) were terminated.

What that meant – in a nutshell – was that the  VA was terminating Veteran’s benefits claims – even when it failed  to fulfill a very specific (and not at all burdensome)  duty under 38 CFR 3.156(b).

The gang over at NVLSP – the National Veterans Legal Services Program – put their foot down.

Advocates Bart Stichman, Amy Odom and Louis George put together one hell of an argument and got the U.S Federal Circuit Court of Appeals to lay down the law.

Now, when a Veteran submits evidence to the VA within 1 year of a denial of a claim – and the VA never makes a determination as to whether that material was new and material evidence – your claim may still be pending.

If service connection has been granted (or is granted in the future) for that claim, then you may be entitled to an effective date equal to the date of the initial claim.

Without the team of attorneys at the NVLSP, a lot of Veterans would have been short-changed a lot of benefits.

…Do You See the Trend, Here?

A few years back, Veterans forced Congress to let them hire attorneys to appeal the VA’s horrendous decisions.

And with each passing year, attorneys do what we do best…

…..kick open the doors to the Courthouse for Veterans denied access to the Courts…..

….prove that the Constitution, the US Code and general legal theories that benefit every other class of citizen in every other court of law applies equally to Veterans….

…..and force change through the Courts when Congress or the Executive Branch won’t throw a ruck on their back and do some heavy lifting to help Veterans.

So take a minute today to find a Veteran’s lawyer – or your lawyer – and write ’em a  thank you note.

Those 2 words are more empowering and motivating to a lawyer than you might ever want to believe.

 

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