Understanding Attorney Fees for Your VA Disability Claim | South Portland, ME

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Understanding Attorney Fees for Your VA Disability Claim

Atty. Kristian Terison: [00:00:00] what are some of the most common misconceptions that veterans have about attorney’s fees and hiring an attorney to help with their VA disability claim?

Atty. Francis Jackson: Well, I think there are a couple that are really important to talk about. One is that It’s too expensive to hire an attorney.

Lots of folks who have not dealt with attorneys are put off by the notion that they’re going to have to pay lots and lots of money up front or pay by the hour and feel that they can’t afford to have an attorney. That’s probably the biggest misconception. Another misconception that’s still out there is that Veterans are not allowed to have an attorney represent them.


Atty. Francis Jackson: Hello, this is Francis Jackson. Welcome to Victory Over VA, your guide to unlocking your VA disability benefits. So, who are we and why are we here? Well, I’m Francis Jackson and this is a podcast from the firm of Jackson and MacNichol and what it’s all about is helping veterans to understand their disability benefits from the VA.

Now, who’s this for? Well, obviously it’s for veterans, but it’s also for those who care about veterans. Family, friends, others who [00:02:00] support various veterans around the country. So, today, we’re here to talk about attorney fees.

Atty. Kristian Terison: All right. And I’m Kristian Terrison, one of the attorneys at Jackson and MacNichol.

Now to start off with, what are some of the most common misconceptions that veterans have about attorney’s fees and hiring an attorney to help with their VA disability claim?

Atty. Francis Jackson: Well, I think there are a couple that are really important to talk about. One is that It’s too expensive to hire an attorney.

Lots of folks who have not dealt with attorneys are put off by the notion that they’re going to have to pay lots and lots of money up front or pay by the hour and feel that they can’t afford to have an attorney. That’s probably the biggest misconception. Another misconception that’s still out there is that Veterans are not allowed to have an [00:03:00] attorney represent them.

And that’s a little more complicated because here’s how it works. For a long time, from the 1800s to 1988 there was a law that said that you could hire an attorney, but you couldn’t pay him more than $10. Now, that was fine back in the 1860s. $10 was a lot of money. By the 1960s It was very hard to find an attorney who would do much for you for $10.

So, that misconception is still floating around out there. There are still folks who think that they are either barred from hiring an attorney at all or barred from paying an attorney a sum that would actually get an attorney to represent them. So, those are some of the the biggest misconceptions, but there’s sort of a variation on that last one.

There is actually a rule that says that you can’t retain [00:04:00] and pay an attorney to represent you in a VA case until you’ve had an initial decision. In other words, you can’t go out and hire a lawyer to draft your VA claim for you. There are some folks who might do that for you without a charge, but unless you can find someone who’s willing to do it for free, you can’t get the services of an attorney until you’ve had an initial decision, made a claim, submitted it to the regional office, had it decided.

Atty. Kristian Terison: All right. So, I know you said one of the misconceptions is people think they’re going to have to pay a big sum up front or pay a lot by the hour. I know there are attorneys out there who, you know, you need a $5,000 retainer before they’ll start on your case, something like that.

What’s different about a VA disability attorney? What is the typical fee structure there?

Atty. Francis Jackson: Good question. The way it works is that most attorneys not all, but [00:05:00] most VA attorneys handle cases on what’s called a contingent fee agreement, meaning that the attorney undertakes the case with the understanding that the only way the attorney is going to be paid is if we win the case and are successful in getting monetary benefits for the veteran.

Now, there are a couple of different variations on that. The VA has a rule that the agency itself will be responsible for collecting and paying the attorney’s fees in cases where the attorney is successful in getting someone benefits so long as the attorney limits the fee to 20 percent of the past due benefits or one fifth of the past due benefits.

The other option is that the attorney and the [00:06:00] client can agree on a higher fee, but if they do, the VA won’t be involved in paying the fee. It’ll be directly between attorney and client. And in those cases the typical fees range anywhere from 25 percent to 33 percent depending on the particular attorney you’re talking to and how their particular office is structured.

Atty. Kristian Terison:So, I know, you know, here at Jackson MacNicholwe have a nationwide practice for one of the top VA law firms. You described the sort of VA sanction fee setup and then there are some attorneys who charge a premium. Whatdo you do at Jackson MacNichol

Atty. Francis Jackson: We have decided that we are going to hold the fees to 20 percent for a couple of reasons.

The most obvious one is that we’re here to help veterans and we think that’s a fair return on our time and effort. But secondarily, it’s easier for us in terms of managing [00:07:00] the the cases, since we do a lot of different cases, to have all the fees paid through the VA. It lets us track them better and kind of project and organize where things are going.

So, we do the 20 percent fee with an arrangement for payment through the VA.

Atty. Kristian Terison: All right. So, if you know, we win a big back pay award for a veteran, they don’t have to worry about paying us, the VA does the math and all of that?

Atty. Francis Jackson: That’s correct. With the caveat that the VA is a big bureaucracy and every once in a while they mess it up and don’t remember to pay us and then they have to go back and sort out the mess.

But 99 percent of the time they get it right and they take care of it for the veteran so that they just withhold the money and and pay us directly. The veteran doesn’t have to worry about it at all.

Atty. Kristian Terison: Gotcha. Gotcha. So, I guess, how does, if you could break it down, the potential financial [00:08:00] outcome of having an attorney compare to the cost of having an attorney?

Atty. Francis Jackson: Sure. As one happy client said to me one time, I’d rather have 80 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing. And I think that’s probably as much as you could break the issue down. What it comes down to is this, the VA is a large bureaucracy. They have a claim process that’s very much like an insurance company.

You have to go to them, you have to make the claim, you have to prove the claim. For lots of veterans, especially older veterans veterans who are ill veterans who are suffering from emotional difficulties it’s simply beyond them to undertake the kind of consistent, persistent, organized approach to approving claims that is necessary to win VA claims.[00:09:00]

And so for those folks, really the only way they’re going to be successful, is if they have someone who understands the process represent them throughout it. And the net result of that is that for those folks, it’s very much like the client I was just quoting. They can go forward with the claim, someone else will do all the heavy lifting, keep the claim going, make sure all the things are filed on time, and the result will be that.

The veteran gets benefits and only pays 20 percent of the past due benefits. And I just want to emphasize that last part. It’s only the past due benefits that the fee is based on. So, for example, if we represent someone and we ultimately win their claim and the VA decides that [00:10:00] the person became disabled a month ago, not back when they filed, and sometimes that happens.

The fee would be based on that one month, not on the 30 years of benefits they’re going to get going forward. And even in cases where the claim has been going on for a long time, and so the past due benefits will be substantial. The fee is only based on the past due benefits. We never ask people to pay a fee out of their ongoing benefits.

So, once we get them benefits, the monthly benefit that they get from that point forward is untouched in terms of fees. They won’t be asked to pay anything from that, except costs that were incurred in getting their fees.

Atty. Kristian Terison: And, I guess can you explain in a little more detail the difference between costs and fees?

Atty. Francis Jackson: I can. [00:11:00] Costs are just what they sound like. If if we represent someone sometimes there will be costs involved. That can be anything from paying to get medical records from a doctor or a hospital to hiring an expert in a very particular specialty. to write a report explaining why the particular veteran’s condition that he is suffering from now, or sometimes sadly has died from, is connected to his service.

Let me give you an example. A few years ago, we represented a widow whose husband had died from lung problems, and The VA turned him down saying there was no evidence that his lung problems occurred while he was in the service and that they started years later and the VA therefore thought it was unrelated to his service.

We [00:12:00] ultimately were able to find a specialist an oncologist, that’s a cancer doctor, who said that this poor gentleman’s lung cancer had been caused by his time serving on submarines, which at that point had asbestos used for insulation in the hull, in the piping. They were full of asbestos is the short version.

And he was able to explain to the VA how that exposure to asbestos led to this veteran’s lung cancer and ultimately caused his death. And so we were able to get this lady a substantial benefits in terms of what’s called DIC or Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, which is compensation to a spouse for the loss of their spouse due to a service connected injury or in this case death.

Atty. Kristian Terison: When we’re looking at taking on a [00:13:00] new veteran client, here at Jackson & MacNichol, have we ever looked at their finances or turned anyone away for inability to pay?

Atty. Francis Jackson: No we don’t we don’t look at cases in terms of the client’s ability to pay. We look at cases in terms of, is this a case where we can help the veteran to prove service connection?

And is it a serious case? And I add that last because, unfortunately, there are many more veterans in the world than we have the resources to serve. So, what we try to do is to look at cases and say, okay, this is a client or potential client with a claim that is so serious that getting his or her veterans benefits will really be life changing for them.

We try to focus on those cases. [00:14:00] Obviously when you’re at the beginning of a case, you never know how it’s going to come out and so we’re making some educated guesses based on our experience about where these cases are going to go. Frankly, sometimes we’re wrong. Sometimes we are not as successful as we think we should be.

But our goal in selecting cases is to try to represent those veterans who we think have the most severe service connected problems and to help them get their benefits.

Atty. Kristian Terison: Are there any costs, fees, expenses that come as a surprise to our clients or anything that they should be looking out for, anything like that a lot of people I know can be worried about getting charged by the phone call or by the email when it comes to dealing with lawyers.

Atty. Francis Jackson: No. We don’t charge anybody by the hour, in VA cases we’ve actually had people ask to be [00:15:00] charged by the hour and we just don’t do that. We’re not set up for that. We only do contingent fee work. But in terms of the unexpected nature of expenses I don’t think there’s really anything that’s not pretty readily foreseeable by way of expenses.

The typical expenses that we run into are Expenses for medical records. Occasionally, we have to pay an investigator to go and try to interview a reluctant witness who may have critical information or to find a witness who may have critical information. Sometimes there will be some modest costs related to getting information from the government under the Freedom of Information Act.

There is a provision in the Act that allows the government to charge for certain requests for records. But the only expense that is usually at all significant [00:16:00] and comes up with any frequency tends to be getting medical reports Um, for many veterans, the reason that they are turned down initially by the VA.

And the hurdle that we have to overcome is that there is not a sufficient report or opinion from a medical person demonstrating how the event in the service or illness in the service is tied to the current medical problem that’s causing the veteran’s disability. It’s quite common for us to need to get a medical expert to write a report and those can be quite expensive.

Hundreds, sometimes even a couple thousand dollars. We’ve actually had them go as high as over 3, 000 for real specialized reports from world renowned experts. [00:17:00] But that’s usually The only big expense in the case, and the way we handle those is we tell the veteran up front that we’re willing to absorb the cost and pay for that report if they’re not in a position to, and what we do is when we win the case, and mostly we do, we rarely lose a case where we get an expert report, but it happens once in a while, but I digress.

The bottom line is that’s typically the only big expense getting an expert report Once in a while we have to get a report not from a medical expert, but from a vocational expert explaining how the veterans service connected disabilities prevent him from working or prevent her from working in order to establish higher levels of compensation.

But generally speaking, the only big [00:18:00] expense is medical reports. And we explain that we’ll put the money out up front. All we ask is that if and when we win and the veteran gets money that they pay us back for that expense out of the money that they get.

Atty. Kristian Terison: Gotcha. And how about in those rare instances like you mentioned where you know, we advance the money for,

for a medical report and there isn’t a successful outcome?

Atty. Francis Jackson: We just eat that cost. We never charge a veteran for any expense in a case where we don’t succeed.

Atty. Kristian Terison: Gotcha. And one of the last things I wanted to ask about is, you know, it’s all well and good hearing us as veterans disability attorneys say you know, what folks get for their fees and things like that, but is there any third party evidence out there that Having an attorney is worth the investment when it comes to a veteran’s disability claim?[00:19:00]

Atty. Francis Jackson: Oh, sure. The VA’s own statistics break out the rates of success by whether a person is represented by an attorney, represented by a veteran’s service organization, non attorneys, and people who represent themselves. And the rates of success go up proportionally, folks who represent themselves are the least successful.

Folks who are represented by veteran service organizations kind of fall next on the, success ladder. And folks who are represented by attorneys are at the highest level. And, you know, that’s, I want to be clear that attorneys across the board all attorneys, no matter how experienced and skilled or new and unskilled.

So, the VA statistics don’t separate out the expertise and skill level within the group of attorneys. Our success rate [00:20:00] is very high. For folks who are able to stick with us for the entire process, which can be quite lengthy we have better than a 90 percent success rate.

Atty. Kristian Terison: And I guess finally you mentioned, you know, for folks who stick with us through the whole process the number one problem with VA disability claims that I hear from our clients is how long it takes.

And, we’ve looked at the problem from every angle and there’s no way to speed it up. You know, other than those fringe cases, folks who are 75 and older, advanced age, terminal illness. But are there things on the margins that attorneys know of and that attorneys do that can you know, within those constraints, lead to a quicker result sort of being aware of deadlines, that type of thing?

Atty. Francis Jackson: Sure. Sure. The VA is this big bureaucracy with its own process, and it’s [00:21:00] a very slow process. But there are sometimes things that we can do that make things go a little faster. As you mentioned a moment ago, there is a limited group of folks whose cases can be formally expedited by the VA.

And those folks are sadly folks who are terminally ill, folks who are 75 or older folks who are suffering from severe financial distress and I stress severe because So many veterans who are seeking disability benefits are suffering from financial distress that the VA only looks at those who really are in terrible financial shape.

Usually, you have to show that you filed bankruptcy in order to fit into the financial distress category. So, there are folks that we can get advanced on the docket. In addition to that, there are some other things that [00:22:00] we’ve learned over the years. Obviously one of the things is to file appeals as quickly as possible to reduce the amount of time that it takes.

But there are some other things. The VA in its materials suggests that if you ask for a hearing at the Board of Veterans Appeals, that’s going to delay your case. But, what we’ve found is that because the VA is required to process cases in docket number order, actually asking for a hearing doesn’t seem to slow things down.

They take the cases in the same order, whether you don’t ask for a hearing, whether you submit new evidence, whether you ask for a hearing, whatever you do. It’s always the same docket number order. But putting that aside, we have found that occasionally, and I have to underline occasionally because it doesn’t work all the time, [00:23:00] occasionally getting an inquiry from a senator or a congressman will speed things up a little.

Sometimes just persistent inquiries to the VA will speed things up a little. But, in all honesty. If your goal is only to speed up your case, hiring an attorney is not your best move. It is unlikely that’s going to magically make your case go faster. And we’ve had some clients who hired us apparently with the thought that it would make their case go faster, only to find that it didn’t, and were frustrated by that.

So, I tell people right up front, hiring us will not get a faster result. It will get a better result, but not a faster result. And I sometimes joke with people that I can get you a fast denial pretty much anytime, but that’s not usually what they want. So, it’s a difficult problem helping [00:24:00] people to deal with the stress of having these Claims hanging for long periods of time, and we do our best to help with that.

You know, we’re not mental health counselors, we’re not therapists but we do our best to support our clients through the time it takes to get to the end of the process, which in some cases takes a long time, other times, fortunately, it goes fairly quickly.

Atty. Kristian Terison: Well, we’re just about out of time for today.

Do you have any final thoughts or comments just on, you know, the affordability

Atty. Francis Jackson: Sure. I would encourage everyone who makes a VA claim to make that claim on their own at first or through a Veterans Service organization that doesn’t charge them, there’s no downside to trying to do it that way and save the money.

But if you get turned down, you need to take a hard look at what’s going on and decide whether [00:25:00] it’s important to you to win the claim. And if it’s important to you to win the claim, then you need to seriously think about hiring someone who is skilled and has expertise in handling these claims.

And in most cases as I keep coming back to, I’ll never forget that one client who said, I’m much happier with 80 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing. So, I think that really capsulizes the whole issue pretty well.

Atty. Kristian Terison: All right. Well, thank you everybody for tuning in today. This has been another episode of Victory Over VA. Be sure to subscribe and tune in next time for more helpful information about veterans disability and what folks can do to increase their success on their claims.

Atty. Francis Jackson: And we’ll see you next week.


Many veterans have questions and misconceptions about what it costs to hire an attorney to help with their VA disability claim. In this week’s episode of Victory Over VA, Attorneys Francis Jackson and Kristian Terison tackle the topic head-on, providing veterans with clarity on attorney fees and representation costs.

Attorneys Jackson and Terison start by addressing some of the common myths veterans believe, like thinking lawyers are too expensive or that veterans are not even allowed legal representation. They then explain how most disability attorneys work on contingency, meaning they only get paid if they win veterans’ cases. 

They also detail what a typical VA disability lawyer fee structure looks like, including limits set by the VA and average attorney rates. Attorneys Jackson and Terison break down the math, using real examples to compare the potential financial benefits gained by legal help versus the fraction of backpay owed for attorney fees. Important related topics covered are the differences between “fees,” “costs,” and “expenses” – and what veterans can expect to pay for each.

If you or someone you care about has wondered about the financial component of hiring an attorney for a VA disability claim, this week’s Victory Over VA delivers. Tune in to get transparent, detailed answers to all your biggest questions about lawyer fees and representation costs for veteran disability claims.

Other subjects we covered on the show:

  • Why hiring an attorney does NOT speed up your VA disability claim (and what it does do).
  • Real-world examples of cases where lawyers helped veterans get benefits.
  • The difference in claim success rates: unrepresented vs. working with veterans service organizations vs. attorney representation.
  • Options for expediting VA claims (for certain groups like terminally ill and elderly veterans).
  • Whether Jackson & McNichol turn any veterans away based on ability to pay.
  • The importance of sticking with your attorney for the long haul of the claims process.
  • Surprise costs veterans should watch out for with VA disability lawyers.
  • Third-party data showing attorneys increase claim success rates.
  • Tips from attorney Francis Jackson: when to try filing VA disability on your own vs. hiring expert help.

AND MORE TOPICS COVERED IN THE FULL INTERVIEW!!! You can check that out and subscribe to YouTube.

If you want to know more about Attorneys Francis Jackson and Kristian Terison, you may reach out to them at:

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