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Sidley Austin attorney Ron Flagg took center stage last October to tell lawyers gathered in the biggest conference room at his firm’s Washington office and via speakers at other law firmsnationwide that they could make an “enormous difference” in the life of a U.S. war veteran seeking disability benefits from the government. “They could help people get the benefits they’ve been promised and deserve,” Flagg recalled telling participants in the inaugural meeting of a pro bono program created by several law firms and theGeorgetown University Law Center’s Pro Bono Institute, in conjunction with veterans’ organizations. As many as 400 attorneys at 50 law firms, including Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Washington’s Dickstein Shapiro, plus three corporate law departments, have shown interest, and 70 cases have beenparceled out for review during the project’s first two months. Flagg eventually hopes to be sending 100 cases per month to volunteer lawyers. “We wanted to start it relatively slowly so that any kinks in the system got worked out,” said Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute. While many of the lawyers who have volunteered were attracted to the cause by reports of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans returning home to inadequate medical care and benefits, the first caseshave involved vets from earlier conflicts, including World War II, the Vietnam War and the first Persian Gulf War. Flagg expects the program to be around to assist the fresh crop of war veterans. The program has two goals: to help veterans press the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) for disability benefits, and to help military personnel on the cusp of discharge secure the mostaccurate government medical report possible for conditions that may entitle them to benefits. The annual number of disability-related claims has risen by about 20% during the past six years, reaching about806,000 claims in 2006, according to the V.A. Flagg and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr attorney John Harwood have been two of the most influential attorneys in starting the program, said Lardent. “They’ve really been key,” she said oftheir work, in combination with that of officials at the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) in Washington. Flagg, 54, has never been in the military, but said he has been helping veterans with cases for 20 years. Though not working directly on any cases now, he has helped craft the new initiative aschairman of the board at the NVLSP and as pro bono chief at Sidley. Sidley has taken five of the cases so far, and has hired part-time attorney Emily Wexler to coordinate these matters. The firm has spent $30,000 plus about 1,000 hours on the program, Flaggsaid. “We’re hoping to move the cases along and give the veterans the benefit of all the arguments they have,” Wexler said. It’s not uncommon for a case to meander through the system for up to seven years, she said. Given that the program is focused mainly on appeals from benefits determinations, it’s not surprising ithas yet to handle any related to the current wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, Flagg said. Some 14,000 military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan are injured and unable to return to active duty, according to the Department of Defense, and therefore potentially eligible for disabilitybenefits. Wexler expects that every Sidley lawyer seeking a case will have one sometime this year. It could add up to more than 50 cases by the end of 2008. David Wetmore, a Sidley associate in Washington, has devoted about 100 hours to representing a military reservist who was deployed in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. The veteran suffersfrom Gulf War syndrome � a combination of headaches, fatigue and vision disorders � plus a heart condition brought on by a drug improperly given to him while he was in the military, Wetmoresaid. Wetmore has assisted the 58-year-old veteran in fighting for more benefits based on his heart problem and a bladder condition tied to Gulf War syndrome, neither of which was taken into account whenthe V.A. set his monthly benefits, which, as of 2005, amounted to $112. Wetmore helped in bolstering evidence of the man’s medical conditions, and the veteran reached a preliminary agreement with theV.A. in November that will allow him to pursue a new disability designation that could provide more benefits. “A lot of these cases, they’re really won or lost in the minutiae,” Wetmore said.

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