John Kennedy once said:” The Great Enemy of Truth is not the Lie, but the Myth – it is persistent, persuasive, yet unrealistic.”
This is true in Veterans Law, as well.
I will continue to debunk myths whenever I see them.
One myth that I want to tackle today is about attorneys that represent Veterans.
Myth: Attorneys that represent Veterans are”money-grubbers”, delaying cases just to get a bigger fee.
The public’s (mis)perception of lawyers is pretty low.
A lot of the misperceptions of attorneys stem from a belief that we are all rolling naked in piles of cash.
This negative perception of lawyers, I believe, plays a huge role in the high suicide rate in the legal profession.
It doesn’t make things better when a dissent in a Veterans Court case includes what I perceive as a poem that engages in unfair and damaging”lawyer-bashing”.
Here’s the “punch” the Court delivered:
Here’s what happened – a Veteran’s case climbed the VA Claims Process ladder until it got to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
Before the Veterans Court was a legitimate question of jurisdiction.
Jurisdiction is – oversimplified – a court’s legal authority to even hear a case, no less decide it.
Not a crucial life-or-death question, to be sure, but the kind of question that yields stability in the Rule of Law.
The decision included a dissenting opinion. Nothing wrong with that.
A dissent is an opinion by a Judge or Judges that disagree with the majority opinion – which presents a different perspective of the jurisdictional question in the case.
The Veterans Court Judges are all very intelligent men and women – all of them clearly have a passion and dedication to the work they do. Over the last 2-3 years, I have heard 3 of the Veterans Court Judges speak: Judge Kasold, Judge Bartley and Judge Greenberg.
Each of their presentations show them to be intelligent jurists with a clear passion for the work they do.
Even for the most astute jurist, questions of jurisdiction can be very challenging.
When I clerked for Chief Justice Phillips at the Texas Supreme Court over a decade ago, I had the opportunity to assist in the research of an important constitutional and jurisdictional question that was before that Court. (Sorry, can’t tell you what it was.)
Watching the Chief Justice of the Highest Court in one of the largest States in the country wrestle with issues of jurisdiction is something every law student should be privileged enough to see. It showed me that jurisdictional questions are among the toughest to be answered – in part because the consequence of any decision is to broaden or limit the right of access of citizens to a legal remedy.
And it showed me that – no matter the outcome or the narrowness of the issue – questions of jurisdiction are the fulcrum on which the fairness and impartiality of our judicial system is balanced.
Just about any time you see a jurisdictional issue in a case, it comes down to this: one side wants access to the court to seek a remedy for a wrong, and the other side wants to limit the courts ability to issue said remedy.
The right of access to a remedy has been, arguably, fought over more than any other legal right since the Magna Carta.
That said, here’s where I had a real problem with one of the dissents in the above referenced case…the 13 stanza poem that closes out the dissent.
One stanza in the poem, in particular, punched me – HARD – in the gut:
For some the case is of import;
over the din, their voices report lawyers shouting with glee: “
We can now charge a fee when before we would come up short!”
This stanza – written by a Judge, an officer of the Court – suggests that the question of jurisdiction was important to the lawyers – not because of the import of jurisdictional questions, but because the resolution of the question served to generate more fees for lawyers.
This theme appears in the other dissent, as well:
“Ultimately,only attorneys can benefit from this decision, and they will do so at the expense of veterans, survivors, and taxpayers. In particular, by finding that the Court has jurisdiction to consider interlocutory matters on direct appeal, rather than through petitions, the majority grants an unearned financial benefit to attorneys filing such appeals in the form of EAJA fees. By endorsing a remedy that takes six times longer on average to resolve than a petition, the majority creates an opportunity for unscrupulous attorneys to draw out litigation to their personal gain. The likelihood of such an abuse is compounded by the fact that the Court routinely awards EAJA fees in direct appeals, when—as here—the Secretary does not contest the application, even when more efficient alternatives exist.” (Emphasis is mine).
Read in context, this stanza seems to merely pile-on to a myth about lawyers.
Veterans lawyers, specifically.
In laymen’s language, the dissents’ implications were that the lawyers in the case were making a jurisdictional argument for the purpose of making money.
This is not an accusation lawyers take lightly: I suspect many a State Bar might find it unethical for an attorney to delay litigation for the purpose of the attorney’s private/personal gain. Beyond that, no attorney I know wants to “carry” a client on his/her “books” any longer than he has to. Even just from a business perspective, its incredibly costly and inefficient.
For a Court trying to conduct outreach to “lure” young lawyers to the practice of Veterans law, this poem may be a tremendous setback.
What new attorney would want to start their career in a practice area where any jurist believes that attorneys are chortling and chuckling over a scheme to delay cases for more attorney fees?
What new attorney wants to work in a Court where the Jurists express contempt for the work they might do? People in today’s political, economic, and social climate are trying to get away from unnecessary disharmony in life and work – not race towards it.
But beyond that…here’s the real “rub”:
I know a lot of Veterans Lawyers: but not one that has gotten rich off Veteran’s cases.
It’s not hard to know most of them – we are a small community – there are probably less than 400 of us who actively practice around the nation.
I’ve learned at the feet of the masters like Ken Carpenter, Ron Abrams, Barb Cook, and Robert Chisholm.
My practice wouldn’t be where it is today – and my clients would not be getting the benefits that they have received from the VA – but for the tutelage and wisdom of attorneys like Wade Bosley, Sandra Booth, Bob Goss, Todd Wesche, Matt Hill, and Zach Stoltz.
These are the Lions of Veterans Advocacy, folks.
And I’m invigorated by newcomers to our practice area…they bring new ideas and new philosophies that will allow us to participate in the shaping of the law before a, relatively speaking, young court. (The Veterans Court in its present form has only existed since the 1980s).
I’m also proud to be a member of the National Organization of Veterans Advocates. Listen – professional advocacy matters in Veterans claims. And a core value of NOVA is to be the “Gold Standard” when it comes to training Veterans Advocates. And they are. We educate, develop, mentor – and when necessary, police – our own.
Here’s the bottom line:
Lawyers representing Veterans change lives with the work that they do.
Even still, I don’t know a single Veterans attorney that is “rolling in the dough”.
That bears repeating: I don’t know a single attorney that has gotten rich off aVeterans’ cases. [I challenge YOU to find me an attorney that has gotten RICH off their Veterans’ law practice…I’m happy to eat crow if I’m wrong.]
Tell me the name of the attorney in a Mail Call Submission: I invite anyone that things that Veterans attorneys are money-grubbers to put a face to your accusation.
In fact, as one very wealthy attorney told me many years ago (I’m paraphrasing): “With a cash flow cycle of 3-5 years [that’s how long attorneys have to work on an average Veteran’s appeal before we get paid], the surest way to find a Bankruptcy Court is to represent Veterans.”
If I had a nickel for every attorney who I saw LEAVE the practice of Veterans law because they couldn’t make a living, I’d have enough nickels to pay a VSO “fat-cat’s” annual salary.
What I have found is exactly the opposite of what the above stanza implies:
Many — most — attorneys representing Veterans have dedicated their lives to change the law for Veterans, to bring justice and due process to a benefits system that is largely dominated by what Veterans perceive as greed, cronyism, and enough red tape to gift-wrap the planet Mars.
Most Veterans attorneys that I know put in 10-18 hour days (or more) fighting to help get Veterans benefits – benefits they were promised when they marched off to fight our wars – before they lost limbs, jobs, families, etc.
Most of us believe in the cause – Justice and Due Process for Veterans, not the “Almighty Greenback.”
I’m certainly not rich.
I have a wonderful life, though, and I love every minute of it — probably because I’m NOT rich.
I’m just your average suburban family man.
Here’s What my Life Looks Like.
I get up every morning, and while brushing my teeth, read a time-worn note that is taped to my mirror:
Job#1:You Will Be the Best Husband and Father you Can Be.
Job #2:You Will Change the Way Veterans Experience the VA Claims Process.
My wife and I raise 3 kids, 1 dog and hold a mortgage on a modest house in a part of Dallas most folks would avoid after sunset.
Since this post was initially published, the Attig clan has left Dallas moved to Little Rock, and is renting a cozy home while we look for our forever house. The Attig Law Firm continues to keep its primary offices in Dallas, and is opening a satellite in Little Rock.
My wife’s car is 15 years old; mine was 16 years old…we are one blown gasket or timing belt failure from having a car payment for the first time in almost a decade.
Update: After 16 years of loyal service, the “Attig Family Truckster Wagon” sparked it’s last cylinder. Back to car payments…on an 11 year old car this time….new cars are just way outside my budget.
I help trim household costs by growing as many vegetables as we can, raising egg-laying chickens in our backyard.
Like many of you, I struggle to pay medical bills for my baby boy. Health insurance premiums and doctor bills about put us in the poor-house until “Obamacare” gave us a little financial – and medical – breathing room.
I have a mountain of law school debt that I’ll chip away at for the better part of the next 20 years.
Our vacations are modest – they usually involve piling the 5 of us into the ‘family wagon’ – literally – for a cross-country road-trip to see family back East.
We’re certainly not going on Caribbean cruises, zip lining in the Honduras, sunning on the beaches of Cabo San Lucas, or touring Europe for weeks on end with rock-n-roll bands.
I like to hunt deer and turkey, and, if I have a few extra bucks at the end of the year, I might splurge on some hunting or camping gear. (Sssh…don’t tell my wife about the new “Turkey gun” I got last year).
Even though the last 7 years have been financially tight, my Firm makes a point to give 10% of the net profit we do make BACK to the Veterans community.
So, before anyone accuses me – or the long line of tireless advocates for Veterans that have come before me – of dragging out a case just to make a few extra bucks, or getting rich on the backs of Veterans, I ask this one request: live a day in our lives.
To any jurist – or VA employee or attorney, for that matter – that feels that lawyers are representing Veterans for the money, I have a standing offer: come spend a day at the Attig Law Firm.
One day here in the trenches might change your perspective. Call my assistant at (866) 627- 7764 and we will set it up. That’s not an empty offer…I’m serious.
Come walk a mile in my boots.
Wealthy Attorneys are usually the ones that DON’T represent Veterans.
Yes, there are bad apples out there in the legal community. It’s a very small percentage, though, and I’d argue that without these really bad attorneys, we might not have the really great ones.
Beyond that, our community does a really good at policing itself.
Just the other day, I dressed down an attorney who was holding himself out as a specialist in Veterans Benefits without being (yet) accredited. I protect my brothers-and-sisters in arms.
This cone-head down in Houston is a prime example of what is wrong in our profession. Or check out this nimrod disciplined by the Arkansas Bar for charging unlawful fees to Arkansas Veterans.
But a few bad apples don’t spoil the bunch. In law, as in many things, a small handful of people excel at embarrassing the rest of us.
Yes there are wealthy attorneys out there. Let’s be honest – there are some obscenely wealthy attorneys out there.
But those attorneys that are rolling in the dough probably are wealthy because they DID NOT represent Veterans.
Call the Top 1000 wealthiest attorneys in this country, and see how many have ever filed a VA Claim. Bet you one of my chickens that number is ZERO.
Think about that, for a minute, if you are among the group that is tempted to paint all attorneys with the broad brush of greed and extravagance.
Life in the Trenches for an Attorney Representing Veterans.
I’m out in the trenches representing our nation’s Veterans every day – watching them struggle to live, and watching many of them die.
We just lost another, recently.
A “Boots-on-the-Ground” Vietnam Veteran that died of a cancer that the law presumes was caused by Agent Orange. If you know this area of the law, you know what that means. It means a Veteran should not have been fighting 8+ years for service-connection. Attorneys aren’t the problem, here. We are the solution. Professional Advocacy matters.
I’ve had more death-bed conversations with Veterans than I care to talk about here.
To 2 of those Veterans, with whom I had a particular affinity and in whose cases I believed strongly in, I made a deathbed promise I would see their wife’s case through until there was no legitimate legal process left to pursue. (I have made good on one of those promises, and have one to go).
A third – a Vietnam Veteran who was one of the kindest and most decent men I knew – died quietly, alone, from the residuals of Agent Orange exposure that the VA should have conceded YEARS before he died. Ironically, shortly after his death, the VA caved and did the right thing.
So when I read the stanza in the dissent’s poem implying that there were attorneys “delaying cases for fees”, I thought of Don, Timothy, and James (I changed the names of the above 3 Veterans, since portions of 2 of these 3 cases are still pending before the VA and BVA — YEARS after Veterans’ deaths).
The implications of the dissent’s poem – issued from the bench of a Veterans Court that I respect – made me sick to my stomach.
I am going to stop there: my unfiltered reaction to a poem that bashes my profession and my life’s work is best left in the darkest corners of my mind. And so, when I finish this post, I’m going to try to let go of it, and leave it in the past.
I’m sure that the Judge who penned the poem takes pride in his work – I can see that he does … even in the decisions that I and other practitioners disagree with.
I respect pride in one’s work – arguably more than anything else.
But I am also sure that the poem in the above-cited dissent did some damage:
* The insistence upon civility and respect in our judicial system is a 2 way street: to their credit, a great many attorneys have continued to treat the Veterans Court with the utmost respect, despite (what I perceive as) a “below-the-belt” jab at the totality of the private sector attorneys that appear before that Court.
* I believe this poem did damage not just to the reputation of Veterans attorneys, but to the integrity of the legal profession.
* More than that, though, I believe the poem did damage to the cause for Justice and Due Process for Veterans.
I hope that the dissent might consider a retraction or apology as public as the poem itself, but I don’t hold out hope of ever seeing that.
Part of the work of standing firm with our nations’ Veterans means taking a LOT of punches.
I’ve been punched harder by better. And worse. You learn to live with it – even ones that are undeserved. Like my hundreds of colleagues, I will turn the other cheek and go back to my work. If the “sticks-and-stones” of military service didn’t break me, a poem certainly can’t.
It just comes a tremendous disappointment when a Court throws one “below the belt”.
And so, I have said enough.
There is work to be done for my clients, and all of the men and women who proudly carry the title “Veteran”.
I will go look in the mirror, remind myself of my 2 jobs, and climb back in the trenches with my brothers-and-sisters-in-arms.
There, at least, I know the work of Professional Advocates is respected – and appreciated.