The VA benefits system is intended to be claimant-friendly and pro-veteran. This is in fact a cornerstone of the veterans’ benefits system. For this reason, an advocate’s primary responsibility in this area is to ensure that VA meets its obligation to claimants. Also unique to the VA benefits system is that a claimant may be represented by either an attorney or a non-attorney.
The bulk of non-attorneys are veterans’ service officers (VSOs) who work for state and national veterans’ service organizations, such as the American Legion or Disabled American Veterans. This is a very good thing in that it increases the number of representatives available to assist VA claimants who are passionately dedicated to helping veterans and their families. Sadly, however, although my experience reflects that attorneys share this dedication with their VSO counterparts, there nevertheless tends to exist a feeling of resentment between the two groups.
It is important, first and foremost, to remember that the choice of representative is entirely up to the claimant. Each person must make their own decision regarding who will better serve their interests, goals and priorities. It is therefore important to know what the differences between the two groups are.
There is no question that the pros of hiring a VSO are many. VSOs usually have offices located in the VA Regional Office of your state and, there are many more VSOs than attorneys nationwide, they are more locally available. VSOs can assist claimants with more than just claims for VA disability compensation. And, like attorneys, they must obtain accreditation from VA in order to assist veterans, and thus have a working knowledge of the regulations and statues. Moreover, because VSOs are non-profit organizations, they receive funding from both private donations and government grants, and do not have to charge for their services.
Attorneys, on the other hand, have no choice but charge for their services if they wish to stay in business. VSOs often point to this as a reason for not hiring an attorney. However, private VA attorneys do not get paid unless they are successful, which creates a natural incentive to achieve success for their client. It also means that attorneys must often work on a case for years, fueled by simple faith that their efforts will eventually bear fruit for both the client and the firm.
Attorneys are regulated by VA, and are also subject the rules of professional conduct in those states where they are licensed. This means that they are required to stay current on the law, to ensure that all deadlines are met, to provide their clients with reasonable communication, to carry the necessary malpractice insurance, to comply with their continuing legal education requirements, and of course, to zealously advocate for their client. Furthermore, if the Board has denied your claim(s), and you must file an appeal with the Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims (CAVC), a VSO cannot represent you before the Court without attorney supervision. Therefore, you must either have an attorney, or proceed on your own.
The negative feelings that exist between attorneys and VSOs are regrettable as working together advantages both VA claimants and representatives. VSOs have much to gain by using attorneys as a resource for general advice and consultation regarding legal strategy and understanding current case law. In my experience, most attorneys are more than happy to provide this kind of assistance to a VSO who asks. (Have you ever met an attorney who didn’t like to prove how much they know?) Likewise, because attorneys are unavoidably dependent upon their ability to get paid for the work that they do, VA claimants are enormously benefited by a VSO’s ability to assist them without charge in those claims which will result in important, albeit non-monetary, benefits to the claimant.
The ultimate reality is that attorneys and VSOs share a common goal: to obtain benefits for our VA claimants. While the pervasive attitude is that we work at cross-purposes, this is simply not the case. I personally believe that, little by little, this attitude will change and that we will eventually see each as the allies that we truly are. This would be a win-win for everyone, a most importantly, the veterans and their families who need our help.