Do you need to hire a lawyer for a VA claim or appeal?

That depends! (Don’t you love the lawyery answer?)

Do I need to hire a lawyer?

A lot of veterans call me and say they want to hire me to handle their VA claim.  I say, “Wonderful! But have you discussed your claim with a Veterans Service Officer?” VSOs are paid by the county and will help you with the claim for free!  I actually can’t accept a fee for helping you with your claim. (And neither can any other lawyer).  Always use a VSO or a local service organization to file your claim.  It is free, they know what they are doing, and they don’t work for the VA.

When should I hire a lawyer? 

You may want to hire a lawyer if your claim is denied by the VA in whole or in part.  You have one year from the denial decision to appeal.  Please do not wait until the last minute! Act quickly and speak with your VSO about the appeal and what the appeals process will look like.  You may want to stick with the VSO or consider hiring a lawyer. I recommend that you, at least, consult with a lawyer who will review your case and advise on whether your appeal may win.  Please make sure the lawyer is accredited by the VA!

How much will it cost? 

I, like most lawyers, will represent you during VA disability appeal (Board of Veteran Appeals and Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims) for a contingency fee.  That means no money down and the lawyer gets paid if you get paid.  Typically a lawyer will get %20 of any back pay if they win on appeal.  It is the standard fee that the VA recognizes as reasonable.  The VA pays the lawyer directly from the back pay amount. Lawyers may charge more but most keep it at %20.  VSOs or other service organizations (VFW, American Legion, DAV) may be able to continue to help with your appeal and will not accept a fee.

Not every claimant needs to hire an attorney.  I recommend that you speak with the VSO about the appeal and I also suggest that you use an attorney’s free consultation.

Here comes the shameless plug… It just so happens that I represent fellow veterans before the VA so please feel free to reach out and discuss your appeal.


What do I ask the lawyer during the free consultation?

So you are at your initial consultation and the lawyer has made his or her pitch.

What do you say or do next?  Who do you hire?

1.  Start thinking about the conversation as an interview instead of a consultation. This puts you in charge!  It is your legal issue and your money so you are entitled to be selective in who you pick.  Please don’t pick the first lawyer you find on the google machine!  Be scrupulous during this major life decision.   Ask questions about how the lawyer will take care of you instead of only talking about the legal issue.

2.  Experience.  You explained your legal issue.  You must next ask, “What is your experience with this type of issue?” Ask for details.  I tell my clients if their issue is common or unique.  If it is unique, I tell potential clients what I will do to figure out the issue.  I also don’t hesitate to refer potential clients to other attorneys if I don’t practice a certain area.  Be wary of the attorney who somehow practices all areas of the law and takes any client that walks in the door.

3.  Fees.  Make sure you ask your potential lawyer to fully layout the fees.  This needs to be crystal clear.  I mostly charge flat fees or limited fees.  It can be awkward talking and negotiating fees but you need to be comfortable before you sign the dotted line! I want my clients to know the amount that they will be spending up front and what I will be doing for them.  It is ok to ask, “what am I getting for my money?”

4.  Time.  What is your caseload?  Where is my issue on the stack?  Will I be a priority?  Who will actually be handling my case?  Lawyers help multiple clients, of course.  Make sure the lawyer isn’t overwhelmed and that your case will get the attention it needs.

5.  Communication.  Make a plan for how and when the lawyer will discuss the case with you.  Not hearing from your lawyer is frustrating so lay out the communication plan during the initial consultation.  Do you want copies of everything emailed? Just big decisions?  Do you want to talk on the phone or via email?  How involved do you want to be?  Many attorney-client relationships breakdown because nobody is talking to each other and this frustration is not expressed.  Work with your lawyer on how you want to be involved and in what manner you want updates.

6.  Presence.  This is HUGE for me.  It’s an observation not so much a particular question.  Does the lawyer give you his or her undivided attention?  I turn the ringer off, shut down the computer, and make sure to avoid other distractions when meeting with clients.  It is red flag if the lawyer isn’t fully present in the discussion or if he or she is distracted. Make sure that you feel like the lawyer is listening, asking appropriate follow up questions and is genuinely concerned about your legal situation.  You need to have the assurance that you and your legal issue are a high priority.  If not, find someone that will give you their undivided attention in this important new relationship.

7.  Human Connection aka The Warm and Fuzzy.  What does your gut tell you?  How did the lawyer make you feel?  Most lawyers look great on websites and have fancy plaques and awards on the wall.  You are developing a relationship with a lawyer so it is important not to hire someone simply based on their self-proclaimed success.  Did the lawyer seem sincere in wanting to help you?  Did you get the warm and fuzzy!

Remember, the attorney-client relationship should be something much deeper than a standard business relationship.  Take the time and put in the effort to find the right match.

How do I find a lawyer?

Whether you got arrested, you are pending divorce or simply need a will, it is important to have quality legal representation. Our legal is system is far from perfect so it is in your advantage to have a lawyer who you can trust, will communicate with you, and will get the job done for reasonable fee.

How do you do that?  Simply type “divorce lawyer” into the google machine and roll the dice? Here is what I recommend:

1.  Referrals.  I meet most of my clients through other clients or through other attorneys.  I tend to think that I do good work and people recommend me.  Probably seems obvious but folks jump online too quickly these days. Take the time to talk to friends and family when a legal issue pops up.  Chances are you know someone with a DUI, has gone through a divorce, or settled on a house.  You will get first hand knowledge if the lawyer knows what he/she is doing, if the lawyer returns phone calls, charge reasonable fees, etc.  Lawyers that do great work and take care of their clients get referrals.

2.  Local Lawyer Referral Services.  Many counties or bar associations screen lawyers and offer free or low cost consultations. Intake personnel at the referral service also listen to your problem and try to find you a lawyer with experience in the field.

3.  The Internet aka Cyber Abyss.  It can be tough to navigate the results if you type “DUI Lawyer Minnesota.”  How do you pick from all these ads and websites? Are you getting the best lawyers in your search or the ones who have the largest advertising budgets?  I am partial to directories like Findlaw.com and Avvo.com (disclaimer: that is who I pay!) for finding experienced counsel.  Findlaw, Avvo, and comparable directories tend to help you narrow your search by legal issue and geography. These sites give you a bit more information about lawyers and firms compared to a basic web search or phone book listing. That said, see paragraph 4.

4.  RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH.  Did I mention research?  Do your homework before meeting with the lawyer. This may come as a surprise but there are bad lawyers with great websites!  (I know I just revealed such shocking news). So take the time to investigate the person who you will trust to handle your legal matter. This involves checking state bar listings, reviewing firm websites, and simply “googling” the lawyer’s name.  Do they practice in the area of law that you need help with? What do they advertise?  What have other clients said about the lawyer? What associations do they belong to?  The web is powerful tool to figure out a lawyers reputation.  Do your research!

5.  Make a list of 3 or 4 lawyers that you want to meet.  I tell prospective clients that you wouldn’t purchase the first car you test drove so why would you meet with just one counsel.  Chances are your legal situation is the biggest issue in your life at the current moment.  Find the right lawyer to guide you and help you overcome the obstacle.

Coming next…. “I have a list of lawyers.  What do I ask the lawyer?”