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Selecting the Right Representative, Part 1 – 5 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a VA Representative

VIDEO TRANSCRIPTION:

Zach Stolz: Hi, my name is Zach Stolz. I’m a partner at Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick. Thank you very much for joining us today. We are going to talk about five questions to ask a representative before hiring them for your VA claim, and I am joined by Courtney Ross. We’re going to talk through some of this stuff today.

Courtney is a veterans’ attorney with us, who has several years of experience. She and I are going to go back and forth, on what we believe is important and five of the most important questions are obviously more than five, but five of the most important questions you should be asking a potential representative. There are lots of choices now in the world of veteran’s representation and we think that it’s important for you all to be informed, before you sign up with somebody who is going to really be a pretty important part of your life, as far as pursuing your VA cases.

The first question that we think that maybe one should ask a representative for hiring is, are you accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs? Courtney, can you walk us through a little bit of that?

Courtney Ross: Yeah, absolutely. This is a really important question and I think one of the first things you should be asking before you decide to hire any representative. So basically accreditation by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs means that your representative has the legal authority to prepare, present, and prosecute your claims before VA both for veterans, for service members, for your dependents, and for any survivors who step into the shoes of a veteran. If your representative is not accredited by VA, it means they don’t have that same legal authority. So this is really important.

VA actually has a public-facing website where you can search the name of any representative that you’re considering, to confirm whether they have actually been accredited by VA or not. We’re going to include the link to that public-facing website for anybody who wants to utilize it in the description of this video. I would definitely recommend. It’s really easy to search. It’s very user-friendly. You can just do it by first and last name, and their name should pop up if they are accredited immediately for you. Here at CCK, we think this is really important. Our case managers and supervisors are all accredited individuals by VA.

Zach: I’m going to tackle the next question and then we’ll recap at the end of this the top five questions that we have. The second question that we have, how much professional experience do you have? This is something that is very important because this varies as widely as one can possibly imagine. It’s important to get a sense of your potential representatives, experience practicing VA law. VA law is its own thing. It is similar to administrative law in other areas, for example, similar to things like social security or other benefits systems. It is a bit frankly more complicated than most other systems. There is a lot of change that goes on with it. There are a lot of different cases that come out. There are a lot of regulatory changes. There have been major statutory changes and you want to make sure that your representative has enough experience and has lived enough of a VA life, right? To be familiar with what’s going on and be plugged into the veterans’ law community. It’s important to kind of ask, have you worked on various types of claims, physical disabilities, mental health disabilities, combinations of physical and mental disabilities. These are the types of things that we seek very, very often.

At CCK, you can see on our website how much experience we have. I personally have been doing this for about fifteen years and Courtney has been doing it for a number of years. We have people in our firm who, for example, have experience working for the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and have worked with CCK. We, I can assure you, have handled cases that have a lot of complicated both disability aspects and legal aspects to them.

Do you take cases, for example, all the way to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims? We do. That’s mostly what I do frankly, is handle cases with our big team of lawyers here, our large team of employers here, and do take their cases to the CAVC.

Can you represent at the agency level? That’s a VA and the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. We check all those boxes as well at Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick.

Do you understand the appeals process? A major piece of litigation– I’m sorry, legislation that happened very recently is called the Appeals Modernization Act. It really changed the procedures for the way VA cases go through both the agency system, the board system, and then once it gets out of the VA system and goes to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims or the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, they are very, very different. There’s a legacy system which is different than the AMA or Appeals Modernization Act system. It would be good, in our opinion that your representative is familiar with both of those systems because it can change the outcome of a case. Some cases are legacy, some cases are AMA, and some cases are a hybrid of the two. It can get very, very complicated, very, very quickly. So it’s a good idea for your representative to be very up to speed on that.

Another thing that has struck us as we’ve got about our business of representing veterans and their families is whether they outsource any of their legal work, whether they send it out to other people, or whether they keep it within their own firm. CCK, for example, keeps everything in our own firm. We work on them as a team. You may not get an individual attorney as much as you get an entire team of people that are all headquartered at Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick. Of course, due to the pandemic, headquartered doesn’t necessarily mean all in one physical location but we are all in touch with each other. It’s something to keep an eye on as you’re shopping around for who is going to help you out with your cases.

Let’s go to our third question. The third question is, how much do you charge? Probably it should be the first question but we have it as number three. So Courtney, how much do we charge, and how much should people be looking to spend on this very important part of their lives?

Courtney: Yeah. This is another really important question that I think anyone who’s looking for a representative. To your point Zach, this probably is actually going to be the first question that they have. So really it’s important to just, you want to do your research, you want to know and shop around for what different representatives you’re considering hiring, will be charging, and there’s a few important things that you want to keep in mind as you’re shopping around and asking this question.

One is that there are VA regulations that govern when a representative can charge you a fee and how much they can charge. So one important point to keep in mind is that the VA regulations have specific language in them that say, fees that exceed 33.33%, so thirty-three and a third percent of any past-due benefits awarded are considered or are presumed unreasonable fee. So there’s a couple important parts to that sentence.

The first is obviously the thirty-three and a third percent, anything exceeding that is unreasonable. The other part I want to highlight here though is of any past-due benefits. If you’re talking to a representative and considering signing on with them, the fee agreement that you’re signing with them is based on a certain percentage of a retroactive payment to you. Once you get a grant of benefits, you want to pay attention to the number and you want to make sure that it’s going to be… it’s only on a retroactive payment, so past-due benefits.

The fees shouldn’t come out of any future benefit that you receive. Meaning that if you are veteran who with granted service connection today for a condition that’s been pending, next month, you’ll receive the first payment of your monthly benefit payment that’s going to continue to come to you on a monthly basis from VA now. None of the fee should come out of those future payments. It should only be the retroactive lump sum payment, the VA makes to you when the benefits granted. So I think that’s a really important thing to keep in mind when you are shopping around, considering and asking questions about how the fee agreements will be and what you will be responsible for paying to the representative that you hire.

The other important thing to keep in mind is that fees shouldn’t be charged for filing initial claims with VA. Meaning that, if you’re filing a claim for service connection for condition that you’ve never filed before, it’s never been adjudicated by VA, this is the first time you’re filing using what’s called the VA form 526, a fee should not be charged at that point, just for submitting that claim on your behalf. So that’s really important to keep in mind, too.

To Zach’s point, this is a question that’s going to be on any veteran’s mind who’s searching for representation. It’s just really important to ask this question. Like I said, to do your research and really understand what it is that you’re going to be charged for the individual services that you’re hiring.

Zach: Thank you for that, Courtney. Question number four, which is going to come my way. Can you tell me more about your firm? So you’re kind of going through your checklist of things that you want to know about who you’re choosing to be your representative. We say firm here, we obviously work for a law firm with attorneys and credited agents, and other people who helped us as a team. You may be looking for somebody who is more of a solo practitioner or somebody that has a smaller office, in which case you ask more about their practice. So we’re using firm here as kind of a larger catch-all word, but it is helpful to get a sense of the firm as a whole.

Do you have a well-known and proven track record of success? At CCK, you can look at our website, cck-law.com and it has on there a lot of the stuff that we’ve accomplished. Sometimes with help from other people in the veterans law community, of course, has a lot of the court decisions that we’ve won. It has some examples of some cases that we’ve won at the agency. It’s good to check that. There are a lot of websites that are really quite good and can help you through that process. It is also worth doing if you’re not satisfied with what’s on the website to ask the person who is talking with you about what their track record of success looks like.

I’ll be honest, we’re lawyers and advocates and so we’re not going to make any promises. It’s just not the way we’re going to do business and it’s not really an ethical thing to do. The only promise that we can make is that we will work very hard on your case and that we have one case like yours in the past if it’s a case that we are going to take on, but that’s about it. I think that’s another good thing to look for. It’s not something we’re trying to sell you a bill of goods that somebody saying, “We’re going to do our best, it’s going to ultimately be up to the Department of Veterans Affairs or to the court or to wherever we are.” What you’re going to get awarded and when, but we’ll do our very, very best to help you through that process.

Along those lines, it’s worth thinking about awards and recognitions that the firm may have won. It’s good to ask about those types of things. There are several parts of the VA law community that have some nice awards that are given out by the court, or recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs, or recognized by the National Organization of Veterans Advocates, NOVA which gives out awards. It’s good to kind of know that. It’s not the end of the discussion by any means, but it’s something that you can kind of know that other people in the field are vouching for these representatives or vouching for us, and recognize that they are helping veterans and their families.

Then, of course, how many years has your firm been accredited and practicing VA law? It’s good to be realistic about this because when you have a team approach, you’re going to have some people working on your case that may not have been accredited for a really long time. The supervisor or the person that’s going to ultimately sign the papers and make sure that your case is going the right way is somebody who needs to have been around a little bit, I think. It’s good to know how many years that the firm as a whole really has in representing veterans in all stages. You’re going to have your own comfort level with that, but like I say, at CCK, we have decades and decades and decades of shared experience which can really, really help, especially as I’ve referenced before. As Courtney and I have talked about in the complicated system that it is VA. Question four, can you tell me more about your firm?

For the last question for today, number five. Courtney, do you have examples of cases that you have won?

Courtney: Yeah. So this question I think, really echoes some of what Zach’s talked about with asking the representative to tell you more about their firm or to tell you more about their experience. Even on a more specific level, you can ask them to see an example of a similar case that they’ve won if that can help to give you a better sense of how they’re going to represent you. Zach just mentioned that here at CCK we have case examples on our website that veterans can take a look at real cases that we’ve won here at CCK, both at the agency level and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Which speaks to, again, another point Zach made earlier about continuing service throughout every step of the process, right?

So you want to know if the representative or the firm that you’re hiring can offer services at the agency level, but if you’re interested can also offer services at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims or other steps in the process. Getting a case example can also give you some insight into the type of development that your representative might do on your case, what that would look like, and by development I mean, evidence that they might gather outside independent expert opinions or lay testimony from you. It can also give you just some insight into how they formulate strategy and around basically appealing the issue that you’re asking them to represent you on.

I think real-life examples from the person you’re considering hiring too, can also speak to the larger points that Zach was making about. Just the firm itself and certainly the experience that individual or that firm might have working in VA law, in legacy, in AMA, and on the specific condition or the issue that you’re seeking assistance with. So don’t hesitate to ask for real case examples. It can be really helpful and give a lot of insight into what a firm or representative can do for you when you’re shopping around.

Zach: That is going to do it for the five questions. So let’s recap them. Are you accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs? How much professional experience do you have? How much do you charge? Can you tell me more about your firm? Do you have examples of cases that you have won?

To find out more about CCK, please visit our blog which is cck-law.com/blog. You can also just go to cck-law.com and learn as much as you can about our law firm so that you’re comfortable. If you should choose to talk with us about your case, we were always happy to do so. Please be sure that you do it whenever you’re shopping around for other advocates, or veteran’s service organizations, or other really great options for representing your case. These are things that we hope will help you pick the right advocate for you.

Thank you very much. This is Courtney Ross and Zach Stolz signing off. Thanks.