Chisholm, Chisholm & Kilpatrick, a Providence firm that has developed a niche in veterans’ benefits cases, has teamed up with Harvard Law School to launch a Veterans Legal Clinic.
For the last several months, the firm has participated in a pilot program, during which associate Zachary M. Stolz spent three to four hours a week working with the law students. The clinic is run out of Harvard’s Legal Services Center in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, but will take on suits across the country. It currently handles about 25 cases and could expand depending on students’ participation.
Of the 17 lawyers at CC&K, 14 handle national veterans’ claims full time. Partner Robert V. Chisholm, who devoted about 15 hours to the program last semester, recently spoke to Lawyers Weekly reporter Julie McMahon about the clinic.
Q. How did the firm become involved in this partnership?
A. [Harvard Law School professor and Veterans Legal Clinic Director Daniel L. Nagin] reached out to us to partner with him and the legal clinic the school wanted to start. We started that conversation about six months ago. He reached out to us through an advocacy group I’ve been involved in, the National Organization of Veterans Advocates. He’s attended some seminars there.
Q. Why is there a need for this kind of clinic?
A. There has been a lot of press about the huge backlog. When the press is presently referring to the backlog, they are referring to the backlog from the initial claim until veterans get their decision. There is another backlog of cases that occurs after a veteran appeals an initial denial until the appeals process is completed. What we’re working on specifically with Harvard is up the ladder, to the veterans court in Massachusetts. The idea is to help train the next generation of lawyers to handle the process at the agency level and also at court.
Q. On what kinds of matters will the clinic be assisting veterans?
A. There are multiple kinds of benefits available to veterans: disability benefits, educational assistance benefits, vocational retraining benefits. If a veteran dies and there is a surviving spouse or surviving minor child, they would be eligible for benefits. We could see any or all of these potential claims. But I expect we’ll see a lot of disability benefits claims and [related] rights to medical treatment. Working on these claims, you see physical injuries, psychiatric injuries, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other injuries as well.
Q. Who will the average veteran-client be?
A. It isn’t limited to the current conflict. We see veterans from Korea, Vietnam. The majority of our clients [at the firm] are Vietnam veterans, dealing with the residuals from combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I don’t know yet what the clinic will see, but I anticipate more cases from the current conflict as well.
Q. Is this all on a pro bono basis?
A. It is pro bono. But if in court we are successful in representing a veteran, there’s the option to apply for Equal Access to Justice for fees. Those fees are potentially available but don’t come out of the veteran’s pocket; they come out of the government’s pocket.
Q. Why was your firm a good candidate to take on this work?
A. I think there are two pieces to this. I’ve personally been working with the Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims since 1990. I’ve been representing veterans at the court and at the agency level for all these years and do seminars for the National Organization of Veterans Advocates twice a year. We’re also a good match for [Harvard] because we have a number of case we can refer over to them, that are capable of being appealed to the court. We have a relationship with Disabled American Veterans, the largest veteran services organization in the country. Through that relationship we get cases referred to us to appeal to court. It takes a long time for a case to get to that stage through the system. Through that partnership, we are also able to hand over some of those cases to Harvard. DAV has been supportive of us [in this new partnership].
Q. Are there any lawyers at the firm who have ties to the military or veterans?
A. I got into this because my uncle was a veteran who had a claim. It’s not a career path I sought out at the time; I started by representing my uncle. Once I got to veterans court, most veterans there were pro se, and the court would start to send my name out on a list of lawyers active in this area, unbeknownst to me. So I had veterans calling me, and the second case that I got had struck me as interesting. I was successful in that and it grew from there.
We have two non-attorney practitioners at the firm who are licensed to practice before the court and the agency, and they served in the military. Another attorney’s family member recently returned from service. We have an associate coming in who is also with the National Guard. He was actually called up temporarily after the Boston [Marathon bombing] incident. There are a number of connections to veterans with people at the firm.
© Copyright 2013, Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly. All Rights Reserved.