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Student Attorneys Adapt to COVID-19 Changes by Representing Veterans at Virtual Board Hearings

Posted on Thursday 1/7/2021
3L Aly Kozma and 2L Shannon Cox

Amid changes dictated by the current global pandemic, student attorneys at the Betty and Michael D. Wohl Veterans Legal Clinic (VLC) are learning first-hand what it means to adapt and evolve to a new way of practicing law.

Student attorneys in the VLC assist veteran clients with benefits appeals through the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Many of these appeals are now reaching the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA), the appellate body of the VA. Veterans often elect to have their hearing in front of a Veterans Law Judge, which traditionally required traveling to the VA Regional Office in Buffalo, NY, or making a special trip to Washington, DC.   

The BVA recently made significant changes in order to continue its mission of providing hearings and deciding appeals while keeping all parties safe from exposure to COVID-19. These changes involved conducting all hearings remotely and utilizing a virtual platform to hold tele-hearings.

Student attorneys preparing for these boards have found themselves counseling clients remotely, meeting with other students for virtual case presentation, rehearsing from various geographic locations, and effectively preparing their clients for the logistics of a new kind of legal proceeding.  

“Since the VA implemented these changes, the VLC has participated in seven virtual BVA hearings, and it already has several more docketed for the spring 2021 semester,” says Beth Kubala, VLC Executive Director. “Not only are these hearings providing valuable hands-on experiences for our student attorneys, they are gaining unique perspectives in how coronavirus has changed the practice of law. Our students will be prepared to practice in this new environment.”   

“The BVA hearing was an incredible opportunity to represent a veteran in need while also working with my peers on a complicated case,” says 2L Shannon Cox (pictured, top). “The experience taught me valuable lessons I will take with me into my future career.”   

“A hearing before a BVA judge is sometimes the only opportunity a veteran has to communicate with the VA beyond filling out a form or an application, their once chance to make their case in person," explains 3L Aly Kozma (pictured, bottom). "It was important to my partner Shannon Cox and I that we seized this opportunity to advocate for our client and that our client got to tell his story and feel his voice was heard. It was an extremely rewarding experience.”

Says 2L Chris Martz, “In addition to participating in BVA hearing, I was also allowed to be a part of cutting edge legal innovation in the shift to remote hearings. COVID-19 precautions have presented a major challenge to legal representation, but opportunity has presented itself as well. Attorneys and representatives can now advocate on behalf of their clients in any location, all across the US. We can now advocate for clients without having to uproot them from far and distant rural communities in order to access their VA benefits. The VLC has given me the opportunity to participate in the expansion of VA entitlement access to our honorable veterans and I am incredibly grateful.”

The VLC continues to assist veterans and their families with VA healthcare and disability benefits, compensation and pension applications, and discharge upgrades. Although the Center’s physical office in Dineen Hall is closed to the public, the staff is working regular business hours by phone, email, and video teleconference to continue to provide uninterrupted legal support and meet critical filing deadlines for the community’s veteran clients.

Similarly, VLC student attorneys continue to be fully engaged in seminar instruction, clinic work, and case rounds, fulfilling required clinic hours and assisting veteran clients. Regardless of whether teaching and classroom instruction is in person or online, student attorneys have seamlessly continued with coursework and client services. 

“While the mode of service delivery has changed, the quality of those services have not,” explains Kubala. “The VLC proudly continues to provide critical support to our community’s veterans during this unprecedented time.”