Hearing the Call: North Carolina Affiliate Partners to Give Back to Veterans
Alexander P. Ryan is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and practices with the Groom Law Group in Washington, D.C.
A group of young attorneys in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas is serving military veterans who have served them. “When Duty Calls” is a joint project of the North Carolina Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC, a national law firm based in North Carolina, the Homeless Advocacy Project in Philadelphia, and other organizations, that aims to provide pro bono legal assistance to military veterans seeking service-connected benefits.
Historically, some veterans have had difficulty obtaining benefits to which they are entitled for service-related disabilities. Until recently, federal laws generally prohibited veterans from paying attorneys to pursue benefit claims on their behalf. As a result, veterans often filed claims on their own or sought assistance from veterans service organizations, which often lack the legal expertise needed to challenge the benefits application and appeal system.
Craig Cannon, secretary of the North Carolina Bar Association YLD and an attorney with Womble Carlyle’s Winston-Salem, North Carolina, office, initiated “When Duty Calls” largely in response to these challenges. “The goal here is to provide veterans with free legal services that help them successfully navigate the system,” Cannon said. “We’ve provided a roadmap highlighting the needs of veterans.”
North Carolina has the third-highest population of veterans in the United States, and these numbers, as in many other states, are continuing to grow. Hence, “When Duty Calls” has three primary objectives: (1) to heighten awareness of veterans’ difficulties in seeking service-connected benefits, (2) to provide needed pro bono assistance to veterans who seek service-connected disability benefits, and (3) to encourage more attorneys to provide pro bono services, thereby replicating the “When Duty Calls” model in other locations.
Womble Carlyle rolled out “When Duty Calls” this past May, through a series of benefits training programs and legal clinics at the firm’s Raleigh, North Carolina, offices. The training programs provided detailed information about the availability of veterans benefits, the process to apply for and obtain benefits, and the steps involved in litigating denied claims for benefits. Legal clinics followed the training sessions and matched Womble Carlyle attorneys with veterans seeking benefits, on a pro bono basis.
Attorney Tim S. McClain joined Womble Carlyle this year, after serving as general counsel at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., and has also been instrumental in the development of “When Duty Calls.” McClain cannot recall ever seeing an undertaking of this magnitude. “There have been organizations that have helped veterans over the years, but there hasn’t been a movement for law firms to get into the area of pro bono veterans disability law until recently,” McClain said.
Another critical figure in the success of “When Duty Calls” is Michael Taub, a young lawyer staff attorney with the Homeless Advocacy Project in Philadelphia. Taub focuses his efforts on providing services to homeless veterans and is sharing the benefit of that experience with members of the private bar, conducting much of the substantive benefits training for the attorneys. Taub knows how complicated the benefits process can be, particularly for pro se veterans and the non-attorney organizations to which they often turn for assistance. “The system can be overwhelming to our clients,” Taub said. “The procedural maze can be difficult for them to follow.”
That procedural system has several components. Initial claims are generally decided at Department of Veterans Affairs Regional Offices and are subject to several levels of appeal. The process can be especially challenging for homeless veterans, who make up approximately one-third of homeless men, Taub said. “With the homeless population, it’s hard to stay on top of deadlines and dates.” That is where “When Duty Calls” steps in.
Veterans benefits come in two general categories: (1) monetary compensation for current disabilities related to military service and (2) military pension benefits. Historically, the veterans themselves or the service organizations that assist them were required to gather all of the evidence necessary to show they are entitiled to these benefits—without the help of legal counsel. This tended to create delays in obtaining benefits.
“When Duty Calls” utilizes attorneys’ experience in gathering and reviewing documents and records. “The veterans service organizations do a terrific job,” Tim McClain said. But as non-attorneys, veterans are limited in what they can do. Thus, the project brings “a lawyer’s perspective to the process, at no charge to the veteran,” he added. “Attorneys, with very little training, can get involved quickly and make a difference,” concluded Michael Taub of the Advocacy Project.
A Program to Be Replicated