This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

UB to host conference on military benefits

Published: November 9, 2009

The UB Law School will host a Veterans Day symposium designed to explore ways to make it easier for U.S. military and service-members to obtain their entitled benefits.

The conference, to take place at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 10 in 106 O’Brian Hall, North Campus, will feature speakers with professional and legal expertise, an established commitment to the needs of veterans and extensive first-hand military experience.

Panel members will include Hon. Eugene F. Pigott Jr., associate judge on the New York Court of Appeals; Hon. Robert T. Russell Jr., Buffalo City Court judge who started the nation’s first Veterans Treatment Court, a legal venue designed to address veterans’ needs and who has been instrumental in establishing several dozen similar courts throughout the country; and Town of Amherst Justice Mark Farrell, who started the first veterans treatment court in Amherst.

Also on the panel will be Patrick W. Welch, director of the Erie County Office of Veterans Services, and UB Law School student John Soron, president of the UB Law School Armed Forces Student Association.

“Last year, the Bar Association of Erie County formed a committee to specifically address veterans’ and service members’ legal issues,” said Michael Lancer, managing attorney for the Buffalo office of Cascone & Kluepfel LLP and chair of the Committee on Veterans’ and Service Members’ Legal Issues of the Bar Association of Erie County. “The purpose of this committee is to ensure that veterans and service members receive proper legal services. There are so many more of them coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan that there is a heightened need for services.”

Lancer, a non-combat veteran who earned the rank of major after 10 years in the U.S. Army, said the UB conference comes at a crucial time for veterans benefits, both in the magnitude of those in need and because of the quickly changing legal landscape that determines whether these service members obtain these benefits.

Prominent among the topics to be discussed are new legal guidelines that allow private attorneys to advocate for the rights of individual veterans before the Veterans Administration. Before the recent law changed, Lancer said, lawyers were not allowed to represent individual veterans seeking benefits before the VA. Veterans’ advocates from the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion would argue their cases in the interests of these veterans.

“Now, lawyers can advocate on behalf of veterans,” said Lancer. “There are so many things happening as far as veterans benefits and veterans issues right now.

“We want to use this conference to celebrate Veterans Day, but at the same time we want the conference to have a future focus and look for ways to best address the needs of veterans.”

Pigott, a judge on the state’s highest court and a Vietnam veteran, said the conference brings together people who not only are committed to responding to the needs of military and service members, but also those who have established a track record of concrete accomplishments to address the problems.

“As far as I am concerned, our veterans are solid gold,” said Pigott. “I benefitted from the services of the Veterans Administration. But I also understand the frustrations of my fellow military colleagues facing the difficulties they have getting their benefits. The need is huge. The VA has an extensive backlog of cases that need to be addressed.”

The conference also will highlight other local efforts to provide more skilled leadership to veterans seeking their benefits. These include a legal education program designed to certify attorneys to represent these veterans bringing claims before the VA. The program, called “Take A Case,” has been administered through the Mental Health Association of Erie County and will be offered this spring in the UB Law School. The course, designed to significantly increase the legal resources available to veterans going before the VA, also is available to law students, as well as attorneys.

“Under this program, law students looking to get their hands on a real case can actually go through this course and represent veterans,” said Lancer. “If we can get law students interested in these issues now, when they graduate and take the bar exam they will be more inclined and able to assist veterans from the get go. There are a number of good things going on.”