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Update on Veterans Pro Bono Efforts

The Pro Bono Institute would like to thank the amazing number of law firms and corporate legal departments who have stepped forward to volunteer to provide pro bono legal services to veterans as part of a national project administered by the National Veterans Legal Services Project, the American Legion, and other veterans groups.  The details regarding the infrastructure of the volunteer representation project are being finalized and will be disseminated later this month.

In the meantime, the need for legal representation is growing, as is awareness of that need.  One example of a newly-created program is the John Marshall Law School Veterans Legal Support Center and Clinic, which will be the first law school clinic dedicated to veterans issues in the United States.  The clinic will have three initiatives: clinic members will be qualified to train future Chicago attorneys who seek to help returning veterans on a pro bono basis; clinical students will regularly research updates to current laws and developments in the veterans benefits field, for dissemination to a pro bono network of attorneys; and clinic students will also organize and facilitate Continuing Legal Education events to keep pro bono attorneys on the cutting edge of current information in the veterans benefits area.

The most recent regulations proposed by the Department of Veterans Affairs would require “agents and attorneys” to pass a written examination administered by the VA before being allowed to represent veterans regarding claims for benefits.  While the regulation was intended to ensure that claimants receive qualified representation, omitting the exemption for those who are willing to provide free representation to claimants would have the unfortunate result of deterring pro bono attorneys from providing such representation.  As of the writing of the previous article, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs was deciding whether to lobby the VA on this issue.  In an exciting development, Senator Daniel K. Akaka, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, co-authored a letter to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, R. James Nicholson, expressing concern regarding the proposed regulation.  Among other things, the letter noted “As an initial matter, we point out that under Public Law 109-461, the law this regulation would implement, VA was authorized to set minimum levels of experience or specialized training that attorneys must have to practice before VA and to require attorneys to self-certify that they had satisfied any such standards.”

However, the letter continues “as Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Committee that advanced these provisions of law, we do not agree that imposing a mandatory testing requirement on attorneys complies with either the letter or spirit of those provisions. … [W]e have heard concerns about the impact of this regulation from groups who encourage and facilitate pro bono attorney representation of veterans. They have indicated that having to take an examination, as proposed in the regulation, may discourage some attorneys from representing claimants pro bono before VA. Given the significant value of pro bono representation of claimants before VA and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, we ask that, when promulgating the final rule, VA take into account, to the maximum extent practicable, concerns voiced by pro bono attorneys and the groups that support them. At a minimum, we recommend that, if the examination requirement remains in the final regulation, VA should develop an alternative, less cumbersome method that would be used to ensure the quality of pro bono representation.”

Click here to read an article from the National Law Journal on the Pro Bono Institute’s efforts for representation for veterans.

The Pro Bono Institute will continue to monitor and report developments on this issue.