June 1, 2010

Lawyers Helping Veterans Accreditation Is the Key

By David Godfrey

Many veterans need assistance when applying for benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA is the second largest federal agency in terms of the number of employees (more than 205,500 according to govcentral.monster.com/careers/articles/402). Historically, most assistance to veterans filing claims was provided by veterans service organizations with a very limited role for attorneys. Changes in federal regulations in 2008 dramatically expanded the role of attorneys in assisting claimants seeking veterans’ benefits, resulting in significant changes in VA practice.

Among the changes to regulations in 2008 is the requirement that attorneys must be “accredited” by the VA before assisting with the “preparation, presentation, and prosecution” of claims. Attorneys can talk to a client, in general terms, about veterans’ benefits, but once the process of completing and filing an application begins the attorney must be accredited. The accreditation process applies to all attorneys, including legal aid lawyers and pro bono volunteers assisting veterans.

Five Steps to Accreditation Lawyers seeking VA accreditation must complete the following five- step process:

  1. File an application for accreditation with the VA Office of General Counsel.
  2. Receive “initial accreditation” notice from VA.
  3. Complete a three-hour continuing legal education course within 12 months of initial accreditation.
  4. Send a letter certifying completion of the CLE.
  5. Complete and certify to the VA Office of General Counsel at least three hours of ongoing CLE on VA benefits and procedure every two years thereafter.

The application for accreditation is filed on VA form 21a, available online at www4.va.gov/ogc/ accreditation.asp. The form requires the applicant to  provide general contact information, such as name, address, phone numbers, and e-mail address, as well as a summary of education and professional experience, including current employer, date and place of birth, military service information (if any), employment history for the past five or more years, education back to high school, and state and federal bar admission information, including dates and bar numbers (if available) of the attorney seeking accreditation. The applicant must also provide answers to questions relating to character and fitness and to history as a representative before federal agencies.

The information on the application is self certifying as to completeness and accuracy. The form can be completed online using an Adobe “fillable form” and printed for signature. Note that the online fillable form cannot be saved, so it helps to have ready all of the information needed when you start the process. Alternatively, the blank form can be printed and completed with a typewriter. Completing and printing the form is estimated to take 45 minutes or less. The signed form is mailed to the VA Office of General Counsel (mailing instructions are on the form).

Once the form has been reviewed, the VA Office of General Counsel will send the attorney notice of “initial accreditation.”

Following the initial accreditation, the attorney has 12 months to complete a qualifying three-hour CLE program and send certification to the VA Office of General Counsel detailing the title of the program, date and time of attendance, and identity of the CLE provider. The CLE must, at minimum, cover representation and claims procedures, basics of VA benefits eligibility, appeals rights, disability compensation, dependence, and indemnity compensation and basic pensions.

Free Video Fulfills Required VA CLE

The ABA Commission on Law and Aging, as part of an ABA Enterprise Fund grant, in partnership with the Senior Lawyers Division, Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice; Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services; Commission on Homelessness and Poverty; and Standing Committee on Pro and Public Service, collaborated with Paralyzed Veterans of America to distribute free of charge a video CLE titled “A Primer on Veterans Administration Law, Practice and Procedure,” which fulfills the basic CLE requirement for accreditation. The video CLE can be ordered free of charge from a link on the ABA Commission on Law and Aging website at www.abanet.org/aging.

The video CLE was  intended to be used to recruit and train pro bono and emeritus-status attorneys to assist claimants, with a concentration on homeless veterans.

To remain qualified to represent claimants before the VA, attorneys must receive ongoing CLE on VA rules and procedures. Before the end of the third year following initial accreditation and every two years thereafter, attorneys must certify to the VA office of general counsel that they have attended at least an additional three hours of CLE on veterans benefits.

Attorneys can play a vital role in helping veterans who “have borne the battle” in service to the country obtain essential veterans benefits. Attorney accreditation through this free ABA-distributed video is a first step in being accredited to do so. 

David Godfrey (godfreyd@staff. abanet.org) is a senior attorney at the ABA Commission on Law and  Aging.