Veterans Update: Pro Bono Teams Expand Capacity to Connect Veterans with Legal Assistance
One of the most significant barriers preventing veterans with disabilities from obtaining critical pro bono legal assistance in the complex Board of Veterans Appeals process is the lack of a comprehensive system to screen thousands of cases and route clients to willing pro bono attorneys. According to Esther Lardent, President and CEO of the Pro Bono Institute, “The impetus for this initiative to engage significant pro bono legal assistance for veterans came from the law firms and in-house corporate legal departments themselves. In response to the disturbing findings regarding treatment of veterans and the experience of friends and colleagues in the military, they called us to find out how they could best volunteer their services to help service members and veterans get the help they needed and deserved.”
In 2006, the total backlog at VA regional offices was approximately 600,000 claims, according to Gordon P. Erspamer, litigation partner at Morrison & Forester, LLP. In 2008, it is expected to swell to 980,000 with more than 40,000 appeals pending at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Click here to read a longer excerpt of Mr. Erspamer’s discussion of the current and future backlog of veterans’ benefits claims.
While there are a few local programs which help veterans with their benefits claims, there is limited national infrastructure to make volunteer lawyers available to veterans in need across the country and Veterans’ Administration system. In response to the outpouring of concern from law firms and in-house legal departments, the Pro Bono Institute turned to a number of veterans’ advocacy groups – the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), the American Legion, and others – and combined its knowledge of pro bono with their substantive expertise and access to veterans in need.
As a result, a major development has emerged that will reduce the overwhelming backlog of cases. Using pro bono teams of lawyers and paralegals from their Washington, D.C. offices, Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP and Dickstein Shapiro LLP will to assist the NVLSP with case screening and the preparation of appeals files for pro bono volunteers. Morgan Lewis is working directly with NVLSP and providing paralegal support, screening, and case volunteers. Dickstein is also providing paralegals and a large number of case screeners. This critical assistance will streamline and systematize the process of getting veterans connected to the cadre of pro bono volunteers at law firms and legal departments.
Given the enthusiastic response from firms and legal departments, partnering organizations are seeking to expand the veterans’ pro bono initiative to provide high quality legal assistance to hundreds, even thousands, of veterans, while helping to address the system-wide problems that keep veterans from getting the help and services they need. “It is a tribute to the vigor of the pro bono commitment of large firms and legal departments that they first recognized this need and opportunity,” said Ms. Lardent.
NVLSP is seeking the assistance of additional pro bono teams or the assignment of a rotation attorney to help screen thousands of cases which will connect veterans in need with volunteers waiting to serve them. Law firms or legal departments interested in providing such assistance to NVLSP, or attorneys interested in more information about receiving training to handle veterans' appeals, should contact the Pro Bono Institute c/o Jennafer Bonello at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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