We asked Emily Wexler, staff attorney in Chicago and coordinator of the Veterans Benefits Project, to share her thoughts on how the Project has evolved in recent years and the opportunities that she sees for it to continue to grow in the future.
How did you become involved with the Veterans Benefits Project?
I had been an associate at Sidley for seven years when the opportunity arose in 2007 to manage the Project. What I like about this role is that I still get to work on cases in addition to running the program. We work with different pro bono groups who screen the cases for merit and then refer them to us. I select the cases based on how much time the lawyers have and what skills they are looking to utilize and grow. I enjoy serving as the in-house mentor for the volunteers.
Has the caseload increased since the Project was founded?
Yes, and it is due in large part to some exciting developments in the last few years. In 2014, we were asked by Metroplex Veterans Legal Services in Dallas to host a clinic to identify potential veteran clients in the area. The timing was perfect, because I was looking for more cases to meet the internal demand. In 2015, we held another intake clinic in Dallas and expanded to Houston. The 2015 clinics alone resulted in the firm investigating the claims of approximately 30 veterans.
In addition to our Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and combat-related special compensation cases, we have started taking on discharge upgrade cases. There are different gradients of discharge status, honorable being the best and dishonorable being the worst, with points in between. If the discharge status is sufficiently low, the veteran is ineligible for VA disability compensation, and they might even be barred from going to a VA hospital. These cases require a lot of fact development, which is a task for which our associates are well-suited. They also learn how to tell a compelling story about why their client deserves a fresh start on life.
Can you describe a recent case that was particularly successful?
We have had a couple of recent cases that were completely life changing for the clients. Last year, we represented an Army veteran who had been sexually assaulted numerous times during her service and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder based upon the attacks. Our team did an amazing job of interviewing the client and tracking down people from earlier points in her life who could corroborate changes in her behavior over the years. The team produced a heartbreaking but extremely thorough submission, and the client was awarded a disability claim at 70 percent, which is about $1,400 a month for the rest of her life plus some back pay.
We also took a case last year from the veterans clinic at John Marshall Law School here in Chicago for a veteran who served in Vietnam. I think it is often a surprise to people that many clients are older veterans from prior wars. Our client essentially went on with his life after Vietnam and dealt with his unhappiness until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan brought back a lot of painful memories. The team was able to find an expert to evaluate the client, and he was awarded 100 percent disability, which amounts to $3,000 a month, and almost $100,000 in retroactive pay. These are both wonderful examples of the Sidley teams’ work and what we can offer our clients.
How do you see the Project evolving in the future?
I hope that we can continue to find ways to grow the Project. A great area of growth for us would be to host screening and intake clinics in more cities. I would also like to take on more discharge upgrade clients. We have a very good representation of lawyers from across practice areas, so the interest level is there to expand the Project further.