For the same reasons I don’t like videoconference hearings before VA Judges, so, too, I abhor what I just suffered through the last two days. NOVA’s legal conferences are scheduled for various parts of the United States in order to allow litigators across our fruited plains the opportunity to attend without denuding their wallets. If your practice was in Portland, Oregon, you could have attended daily without the added costs of a hotel. Ditto San Antonio, Las Vegas or San Diego etc. on any given year. Sadly, I don’t wish for any in Seattle-ever. It’s an embarrassment of the nth degree. When I moved here after the Vietnam “conflict” (as VFW called it), Seattle was the Emerald City. No one should be forced to step over the homeless as they defecate and shoot up drugs outside the front door of your hotel. As for Portland, all I can say is we were fortunate the “peaceful protestors” didn’t arrive until months later.
Part of the charisma of a NOVA conference is the camaraderie and networking. Where else can you run into the big names in the VA legal arena? Where else can you greet a CAVC Judge in person and shake their hand? Or a high muckitymuck VA representative there to spew their propaganda? Sorry, Rod but every picture doesn’t tell a story. I had no idea Ken Carpenter was shorter in stature than Robert Chisholm. To me, they’re both absolute giants in the VA litigation colosseum. Where else but in the hotel bar at 9 PM can you meet Mr. Bart Stichman of NVLSP fame and have him offer to buy you and your cupcake a B&B apertif? And have another couple next to you say “Whoa! You’re asknod? GTFOH! (or something to that effect)”. It makes you feel famous even if you aren’t and never will be. Asknod is that blowhard Vet blogger who was born on April Fool’s Day. I’m the Jedi knight of the pair.
In short, NOVA conferences not only teach you new techniques to win your claims but pitfalls to avoid on the way there. In 2015, Cupcake and I attended our first one in what was formerly San Francisco before it completely succumbed to outdoor sidewalk camping and the use of gutters for outhouses. I was dumbfounded to meet legendary litigators who treated me as an equal and asknod as a knowledgeable voice for Veterans. Each year, I look forward to meeting both old and new members and trading war stories. One of the most frequent phrases I hear is ” Jez, you’re just never going to believe this one…” Boy howdy. I thought I had been given the bum’s rush for 27 years until I heard some of their folks’ stories.
The Department of Veterans Affairs demands we obtain a certain number of credits for continuing legal education (CLEs) every two years in order to keep our accreditation. Woe betideth any Agent or nonattorney practitioner who lets his or her accreditation lapse. Perish the thought. I guess, for that matter, these requirements apply to VA attorneys in some respects. We all have to have a CLE in Ethics every two years regardless.
I noticed yesterday that there are three (3) Veterans Service Organization members on the rolls. I’ve run into one old DAV boy at several conferences. He looks like a fish out of water. Consider the dichotomy. Most VSOs consider us slightly above whale shit. I’ve been called a VA ambulance chaser by the AMVets poohbah here in Tacoma. All I did was go in and politely ask if they might give me a client’s file or make a copy of it to aid me. Fortunately, with VBMS, I no longer have to suffer that kind of indignity.
What is sad is that our NOVA membership is not nearly as vast as I’d prefer. We hight well over 600 members which sounds robust. It isn’t by a long shot. In truth, at any given time, there are 3 million Veterans seeking compensation -and conversely desperately seeking our employ. While there are thousands of VSOs out there, the sad truth is they have little or no legal training. What’s more, if they do excel and become shining exemplars of VA jurisprudence, they are often admonished to quit being proactive and helping their clients. Well, that or the good ones become inundated in Vets seeking them. Remember always the Congressionally mandated mantra of a VSO is to “help the VA adjudicate Veterans’ claims. That’s a far cry from a VA-accredited attorney/Agent’s prime directive. We are required to represent our Vet to the utmost of our abilities and can be either sanctioned or disbarred for doing anything less.
I think the best example of this was a BVA decision I read a decade ago when I was earning my spurs. A VSO (I disremember which but they’re virtually 6 of 1 and half a dozen of another) at the BVA was arguing for a rating of 10% for tinnitus for each ear. The VLJ was polite as pie and explained in excruciatingly monosyllabic words why that was right out due to the Secretary’s regulation limiting tinnitus to 10% bilaterally. If we tried this stunt, we’d be frogmarched out the door in short order.
NOVA attorneys and agents have been accused of cherry picking high-dollar claims and ignoring horribly complicated time alligators. I disagree. If my experiences are any comparison, I would dispute that. I’ve taken on pro bono claims for R1 and made nothing off them-$0. But then I’m lucky. I don’t have an office in a high rise and a slew of administrative employees with desks and computers so I can do these. I’m fond of one fellow litigator’s rebuttal of that cherry picking view. Face it, cowboy. You’re not going to have much luck trying to hire Perry Mason to fix your traffic ticket.
NOVA attorneys do this day in and day out. Most, but not all, are focused solely on VA law-not a catchall practice of ambulance chasing and SSA with a side of VA thrown in. Agents, of course, are limited solely to VA law. As such, we are all very well-versed in how to interact with VA bozos (be nice). I’m not insensitive to potential clients but my talents are wasted on a Vet who is seeking SC for tinnitus and hammertoes. It would be like seeking out a Ferrari mechanic to tune up your VW bug. It makes far more sense to refer them to a VSO for these claims. My practice is almost exclusively aimed at my fellow Vietnam Vets dying from AO. I do Hepatitis C claims for terminal Vets because I was once one myself. In sum, due to our small numbers, NOVA attorneys and Agents are the most useful for Vets who have difficult viable claims and have been disenfranchised for decades by ignorance of the system and poor legal counsel. Think of it as Triaging on the battlefield. Finding and convincing a practitioner to take your case is no small feat. Now, perhaps by reading this article, Veterans better understand why.
The Fall 2020 virtual NOVA conference, while valuable for learning new techniques, was, to me, more akin to a videoconference with sketchy reception instead of a face-to-face Travel Board hearing. I also can inhale bonus knowledge sitting in the bar listening to Amy Odom and Robert Chisholm discuss the ins and outs of TDIU over single malt. In the same vein, since I’m a one-man band, I like to scout out qualified fellow litigators willing to take my immense overflow. This website attracts many Vets seeking-nay- begging for representation. I feel it is my duty to try to refer them to a willing, qualified practitioner who can win their claims. As for cherry picking, always remember most all of the attorneys have a humongous student debt from doing 7 years of college before they can hang their shingle out. Throw in the up front hard costs of a storefront and electricity and you’re going to find some extremely skeptical lawdogs who want to make sure they aren’t investing in future inland Pacific Ocean waterfront property in Merced or Lodi. Sure, the San Andreas Fault is like totally for sure bound to calf off the western portion of California into the ocean…but when?
Vet attorneys have to pay their bills just as you and I do. In some respects, an agent is a far better prospect for a long shot claim. I have about 10 Vets in this category. I wish I had the ear of someone famous like Lt. Dan who has the deep pockets to aid Vets in their claims. I dream of a well-funded law practice that did pure pro bono law and kicked ass whilst taking names. I surely don’t aspire to run it but it would be the cat’s pajamas for disabled Vets who cannot get any traction. I expect they’d uncover a few Leroy MacKlem-style CUE claims every year and infuriate the VA. Now that would be a daisy. Shucks. Va screws up everything they touch so this would be like fishing with DuPont spinners.
I don’t mean this to be a depressing article. I just enjoy the old-fashioned NOVA venues where adult beverages lubricate Veterans Law and facilitate teaching way more attorneys and agents (the conferences-not the adult beverages). In Vietnam and that elongated country at the westerly-most terminus of the DMZ, we often observed what in polite circles nowadays could best be described as a “target-rich environment”. There simply was no dearth of things to bomb, strafe or nape every day. VA jurisprudence is no different. The proof is in the pudding. Excluding Extraordinary Writs of Mandamus, the CAVC reverses, vacates or sets aside 74% of all appeals that come before them. This flies in the face of the oft-claimed 98% accuracy rate touted by Fearless Leader Wilkie. Rose-tinted sunglasses are de rigueur for this statistical feat. Quite simply, if you do not appeal, your denial was “correct”. Call it a default setting statistic.
Right. So here we are in the middle of a pandemic and many find themselves un or underemployed. What the hey? Why not begin a new adventure in defending VA Vets? Shoo doggies. I didn’t know the difference between 38 CFR and 38 USC in 2008. I’d never heard of CUE. I have no Juris Doctorate. The odds of me getting a handle on this and winning anything were like the Powerball Lotto. But here we are. Pretend you’re an Army Vet. Be all you can be. I guarantee you’ll sleep like a baby and never have a nightmare doing this. What’s more, with a NOVA membership, you’ll have an Army at your back helping you and free advice for the asking. Cool beans, huh?
Hopefully this corona beer thing will pass and we’ll all meet for NOVA in Ft. Worth next spring. That ought to be a hoot. I have more clients in Texas than I have common sense that I’ve taken on over the years. I hope to meet some of them while I’m there. Cupcake and I might just decide to do it as a road trip as we did in ’16 to San Antonio (via Loughlin). That’s reinventing social distancing at a whole new level-with no masks for the most part.
Be safe. Don’t forget to vote (yeah like that’s going to happen). Happy All Hallows’ Eve to you all. Be polite. Practice walking on water instead of making waves. Onward thru the fog. Vote for Oat Willie. Amen.