Applying for disability benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can be a long, frustrating process. Having an attorney to navigate through the VA labyrinth for you can reduce the number of headaches you have to go through. And while an attorney can’t make the VA decide your claim any faster, legal assistance can help you get more of the benefits you are entitled to. It is a significant advantage to you to be represented by an attorney because VA laws and regulations are complex, often difficult to understand, and subject to frequent change.
You often do not need an attorney when you are first applying for VA benefits. You can rely on an agent of a veterans service organization to assist you with your application.
It’s important to have an attorney who is competent in VA matters and who will fully represent your interests. Here are some questions to ask any attorney you're considering hiring.
There are many lawyers who specialize in disability law, but it is important to locate an attorney who has expertise in veterans disability law. There are resources that can help you in this process. If you don't know a veteran who can recommend a disability attorney, try the following.
Use the National Organization of Veterans Advocates website (NOVA). NOVA has an online directory of attorneys (and non-attorney agents) who have been accredited by the VA as well as many attorneys who are admitted to practice before the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals. NOVA attorneys are required to participate in annual veterans benefits trainings and are not listed in the online directory until they have been a NOVA member for one year.
Use Nolo's lawyer directory to view our list of disability lawyers. Some of these lawyers are certified by the VA, though others only take Social Security disability cases. All of these lawyers will give you a free consultation, and if they don't take veterans' cases, they can refer you to a colleague who is VA certified.
If you are now appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC), you will need to find an attorney who is admitted to practice before the court. Many NOVA attorneys practice before the CAVC. You can also use the Court’s list of practitioners to find an appellate attorney.
It’s important for veterans who have suffered military sexual trauma to have an attorney who is sensitive to the issues involved and who is familiar with the obstacles survivors face in the VA benefits system. The Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) provides referrals to male and female veterans who need an attorney who is familiar with military sexual trauma. Call the SWAN legal resource at 202-798-5570.
How much a lawyer can charge for service depends on whether you need help appealing a denial or getting a discharge upgrade.
Attorneys are permitted by law to charge between 20% and 33½% for handling an appeal, but cannot charge more than 33%. These fees will be paid to the attorney only if the veteran wins the appeal and the veteran is awarded benefits. Typically these fees will be paid directly out of the veteran's lump sum payment from the VA.
Attorneys are permitted to set their own fees for discharge upgrades and to charge these fees up front, meaning before they begin work on the case. The amount that attorneys charge for upgrades varies; it will be necessary to contact attorneys to find out what they charge.
The National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) provides free legal assistance to veterans appealing a denial of disability benefits to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Call NVLSP at (202) 265-8305 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program provides free representation to veterans who are appealing any case that was rejected by the Board of Veterans Appeals. This includes decisions denying disability benefits. Request help using their contact form or call them at (888) 838-7727 or (202) 628-8164.
The GI Hotline is a network of twenty veterans service groups that provides legal assistance with discharge upgrades (as well as other legal issues for veterans and active service members). Call them at (877) 447-4487.
Outserve SLDN helps with discharge upgrades and military records corrections for gay, lesbian, and transgender veterans impacted by bans on serving openly in the military. They provide other legal assistance as well, to both active service members and veterans. To request legal assistance, email them at email@example.com.
Law School Clinics. Some law schools offer veterans free legal assistance from law students who are supervised by attorneys and/or paralegals. Check if a law school in your area has a free legal clinic for veterans.
San Francisco Only. Swords to Plowshares provides legal assistance only to veterans who reside in San Francisco. They help with disability benefits and discharge upgrades. Call them at (415) 252-4788 or send them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Use the American Bar Association’s veterans directory of programs to find other local programs providing legal assistance to veterans with disability benefits, discharge upgrades, and a variety of other legal problems.