The Veterans Assistance Project at the City Bar Justice Center (the pro bono arm of the New York City Bar Association) connects lawyers with veterans living on or below the poverty line. It helps veterans with their disability claims and appeals to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). Proskauer organized a small group of volunteers in October 2015 to attend an intake clinic at the City Bar, working in pairs to represent a veteran in need. Our effort has since evolved to include more than 90 from both Proskauer and our project partner Bloomberg LP.
In recognition of our contribution, Proskauer and Bloomberg LP were honored with a City Bar Justice Award at the City Bar Justice Center’s Annual Gala in April 2017. We were noted for our leadership and dedication to pro bono and public service, and for joining forces in an effort to help veterans obtain disability benefits from the VA. Proskauer is proud to have dedicated more than 1,500 pro bono hours to these cases.
Kevin Hackett, a corporate partner and veteran himself, spearheaded this volunteer effort. He had the following to say about this project and its great impact.
Question: Why do veterans need legal counsel to obtain disability benefits?
Answer: Getting their rightful disability benefits is a highly complex and intimidating process with forms that are daunting and procedures that are byzantine. The VA is also overwhelmed by the large number of these cases, which creates a bottleneck that can be broken by having effective advocacy.
Question: What is the scope of this need?
Answer: There are over a million and a half veterans in the country who live in poverty. The poverty rate is higher for 18 to 34 year olds than any other age group, which means that the veterans of the Gulf War and Afghanistan have higher poverty rates than other veterans. Our program is an anti-poverty program in uniform. Research supports that those veterans who have disabilities and are compensated through benefits have a significantly lower poverty rate compared to disabled persons who are not veterans. This shows the importance of VA benefits in helping veterans avoid or emerge from poverty, and in generally driving down the poverty rate among veterans in a meaningful way.
Question: How does Proskauer help?
Answer: We created a program in partnership with Bloomberg LP where 92 lawyers and professionals from both firms form client teams and represent indigent veterans referred by the City Bar Justice Center. Each team analyzes the merits of the potential claims for the veteran and sets a case strategy designed to achieve maximum feasible benefit level for our client. We established a protocol where each team confers with experts at the City Bar Justice Center to define and refine the strategy. Veteran affairs is a principal focus for Proskauer.
The Bloomberg partnership is crucial to this effort. It is powerful that a major corporation and a major law firm are teaming up to deal with a nationwide issue of great importance.
Question: Is there a typical client?
Answer: Yes. Because the military is a volunteer military, there is a higher proportion of military members who are minorities, of more moderate means and of a lower education obtainment, than if there were no draft. The typical client is poor to abjectly poor. Some are homeless or on the verge of homelessness. There have been a few instances of clients who needed assistance to obtain shelter before we took them on as a client. In some cases, clients who lived in shelters were lifted out of poverty by virtue of what we achieved, and the benefits that they received.
Question: Are these types legal services generally available for veterans?
Answer: No. There is a general lack of legal services for this issue, even though this issue is present across the U.S. The City Bar Justice Center is one of few organizations that provides these services.
Question: What does this program mean to you personally?
Answer: I believe that the poor are entitled to a preferential option and that I have a duty to help them exercise that option and enjoy a fuller life. Being a veteran myself, I have special empathy for veterans in poverty.
Question: What sort of results has Proskauer’s program created?
Answer: In the program’s 21 months of existence, we have worked with 35 total clients and have had 7 clear victories, which we define as obtaining a life-changing amount of benefits for our client. We anticipate 14 more cases to be successful and the rest are in progress.
Question: What additional support does Proskauer provide for the program?
Answer: We have established a knowledge management database for this program, where templates and precedents are stored. The universe of potential claims is broad and extensive, yet finite at the same time. As we store information from all clients, we can find common threads among cases and become an efficient machine in taking them on. This database will allow for us to obtain success more quickly and more efficiently.
The database also illustrates the importance of teamwork within this program. This is a collaborative group effort. There are client teams comprised of both Proskauer and Bloomberg lawyers and staff. Each team member is of equal dignity and is learning alongside one another, no matter their title or practice group. These aspects of the program make it more appealing and encourage individuals to take on a case.
As part of the collaborative effort, we hold bi-monthly lunches for the program members. Both Bloomberg and Proskauer team members come together to discuss their cases and to become better acquainted. These lunches have built comradery, community and a sense of belonging. They also give the program more visibility within the two firms, enabling further growth of the program.
Question: What do you see in the future for this program?
Answer: The fact that this important issue is nationwide sets us up to scale the enterprise. Furthermore, given that this involves federal law, not state law, all of our U.S. offices can join in the effort.