Woods & Woods – Veterans Benefits Q & A

by Richmond Williams | September 5, 2014

What led the firm to start advertising for veterans benefits cases?
Prior to June 2007, you generally could not get paid for representing a veteran. I represented many veterans for free because I hated to turn them away. The law changed in 2007 to allow lawyers to get paid. When we announced we were representing veterans, the support from our cj brothers and sisters was great.

What were some unexpected obstacles along the way? What were some “a-ha moments”?
The biggest obstacles are the long delays – it usually takes three years from when we start representing a veteran to get paid. Another big obstacle has been, and continues to be, the constant changes in Veterans Affairs law, which forces us to continually modify our systems. In fact,
the “a-ha moment” was when we realized that the change would never stop. It is not possible to overstate Needles’ contribution to our success. We started with our Social Security checklist and have made many changes along the way.

How did you have to staff differently for this area? What were some key hires since you started?

At first we thought the VA department structure would be just like Social Security. However, because the VA is more complicated, both procedurally and substantively, the entire department is set up differently.

Training new employees is very complicated, so we took one of our senior case managers and made her a full-time trainer. The VA intakes are more involved, requiring more information. We had to train our intake staff to ask more questions than we typically need in the Social Security or personal injury cases.

What does an “ideal” VA case look like? Where do they come from?
An “ideal” VA case is one in which the veteran is disabled. Many veterans are working and only want to be service-connected for problems which will give a low rating and low fees. Our best cases are still referrals from our friends at cj. They send us all of the SS veterans.

How are ratings decisions trending?
Is the government becoming more generous with veterans or becoming broadly tougher as they are with Social Security Disability?
The biggest trend right now is many veterans’ claims are being denied without an exam and the rating decision does not explain why it is denied. Generic language like “more information is needed or the case is a loser” is used, and that does not tell you if the denial is justified. Boilerplate language used in every case forces us to review a lot of files that turn out to be bad cases. This problem will cause the next big trend
in representing veterans: A worsening backlog at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. There are estimates that the number of cases at the BVA will double in the next few years, which will increase waiting times.

How much money have you been able to get for clients since you started? How much do you anticipate is still in the pipeline?
Our average fee is still almost $10,000, which means after our fees the average veteran receives about $40,000. Of course, we decline many meritorious cases because the fee would be too small to spend the time and money to win the case. We have about 4,000 active cases in our office.

Earlier this year you crossed the 5,000 call mark since you started and are on track to hit 3,000 this year alone. What does the future hold for Veterans Affairs?
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced thousands of veterans who need our help. We are also seeing many Vietnam veterans, whose service-related injuries have grown worse with age, preventing them from being able to work. The needs of our veterans transcend generations, and their struggles are perpetuated by the constant change in VA law. For those reasons, and many more, representing veterans will be my work for the rest of my life.