Applying for military or VA disability benefits can be a massive administrative and emotional undertaking. Many veterans, even those who have seemingly straightforward symptoms and diagnoses, need help maneuvering an often frustrating and cumbersome process. Understanding that struggle, Sidley’s pro bono practice has long been dedicated to representing veterans in pursuit of their hard-earned medical and disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense.
The firm’s Veterans Advocacy Project, established in 2007 and led by Chicago pro bono counsel Emily Wexler, gives lawyers the opportunity to work with individual veterans and legal services organizations such as the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP). Through intake clinics, Sidley lawyers conduct interviews with veterans to hear their stories firsthand. In 2022, Sidley pursued more than 115 individual matters and four class actions on behalf of thousands of veterans.
Service Members Helping Each Other Thrive
Forming relationships with veteran pro bono clients is especially meaningful for lawyers who have military experience themselves and understand both the camaraderie and the challenges of service.
“The clients are compelling,” said Aaron Rigby, an M&A and Private Equity partner in the firm’s Dallas office and co-chair of its pro bono committee. Rigby served on active duty as an officer in the U.S. Navy, completing two deployments to the Middle East during and immediately after 9/11.
Unable to navigate the bureaucracy in the benefits application process, many service men and women find themselves spending years seeking earned benefits and compensation, Rigby said. “It’s really disheartening when you see how difficult it is for veterans to get the benefits they’re entitled to.”
Greg Jacobs, a litigation associate in Sidley’s New York office, served three tours of duty overseas as a U.S. Marine. When he joined Sidley in 2021, he prioritized taking on pro bono work for veterans, including several discharge upgrade cases that are currently ongoing.
“I’m able to talk to the clients on a very personal level as someone who has served,” said Jacobs. “Being able to play even a small part in these cases has been very rewarding.”
A Life-Changing Result
Rigby recently oversaw a case that took many twists and turns over years of work. He is gratified to say it ultimately ended with a successful outcome, though humbly remarked “I can’t take any part of the credit for it.” After three years and multiple appeals, a Sidley team led by Rigby and Dallas office managing associate Robert Uhl won a meaningful Combat-Related Special Compensation (CRSC) award for U.S. Army veteran Shermika Thomas. While on tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Thomas suffered physical and mental injuries after a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated a car in her convoy and another one of her convoys was engaged in a firefight.
“During our initial interview, she told us how proud she was to have served and how she would immediately sign up to go back to the Middle East if the Army would let her. Her story was incredibly powerful,” said Uhl.
Thomas sought help from the NVLSP, who referred her case to Sidley. Thomas had initially applied for CRSC for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) pro se, but was denied. Sidley took her case and reapplied but was again denied. Sidley then applied and won compensation for one of her original injuries and two new injuries that Thomas had developed and been diagnosed with after working near burn pits in Afghanistan; she became eligible after a change in the law making it easier for veterans to prove burn pit-related claims. The team then appealed her original claim for PTSD to the Board for the Correction of Military Records. In May 2022, the U.S. Army Human Resources Command approved Thomas’ PTSD claim, resulting in a significant monetary award from the Department of Defense and a 100% CRSC award rating from her four eligible injuries.
When she learned that the award was finally approved, Thomas was elated: “You changed my life for the better and you will never be forgotten by me! A grateful client forever!”
Championing the Cause
In addition to their pro bono work at Sidley, Rigby and Jacobs are both involved with nonprofit organizations dedicated to the success of veterans. Rigby is a board member of Carry The Load, which was founded by two of his fellow naval officers and former Navy SEALs. The nonprofit supports veterans and first responders through community-focused volunteer opportunities and fundraising events.
Jacobs guides veterans through the process of applying to law school in his role as a mentor with the program Service to School. Beyond his day-to-day practice, he finds that pro bono work has given him the opportunity to hone skills in areas that are particularly important for young lawyers, including writing briefs and conducting depositions.
“It’s a great feeling to be able to use my experience as both a veteran and a lawyer,” Jacobs said.