Ann Vessels, The Veterans Advocacy Project
The Veterans Advocacy Project (VAP) is a non-profit working at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. They provide much needed support for veterans dealing with long, complex approval processes when applying for benefits they’re owed—many of whom are left impoverished and without a home after years of national service.
Since a typical case lasts several years, the VAP requires a practice management solution that can keep track of high volumes of technical medical data and service information—all while supporting continuity among the steady turnover of student volunteers helping out with each case.
Veterans in need
Ann Vessels, Director at the VAP and Professor of the Practice of Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, started VAP after her son, Sean, went through the difficult process of applying for benefits after serving for eight years in the military.
In December of 2013, Sean returned from his third tour in the Middle East, but despite submitting his claim to Veteran Affairs when he first got out, he didn’t receive any benefits until November of 2014. Ann and her husband were able to support Sean throughout this process, but they also recognized that the majority of veterans don’t have access to this kind of support.
“If it hadn’t been for us he would have been homeless,” says Ann. “He had absolutely no resources at that time and he needed our help.”
“You’re basically let out of whatever service you were in with whatever you came in with, which is really nothing,” said Sean, who, thanks to his parent’s support, is earning a law degree and has spent time working with the VAP, the Public Defender’s office, and a Veterans Treatment Court.
Since starting the VAP, Ann and the project have helped more than 400 veterans—serving as far back as World War II and up to Iraq and Afghanistan—secure VA benefits and discharge upgrades, so that they can live more comfortable lives.
Information management challenges
The VAP operates out of the Bill Daniels Veteran Services Center in Denver. It’s an open building with a warehouse-chic aesthetic where veterans can get support—even if it’s just to gather with others or grab a coffee.
“There are a lot of services for veterans, but they don’t know where to go, they don’t know how to start, and a lot of them do nothing and they end up on the streets,” says Ann.
Since the VAP is the only legal organization in Colorado doing this type of work on a pro bono basis, operating with a lightweight staff of three staff lawyers and about eight or nine student volunteers, the VAP is always busy with requests. This means they typically have to prioritize work for homeless and low-income veterans.
Ann currently has 109 cases open and 69 pending, and each case has the potential to last several years, which can create continuity issues when student volunteers are only involved for one or two semesters.
Veteran appeals are also resource-intensive, requiring a lot of time and effort dedicated to figuring out what happened to each veteran—whether it’s coping with undiagnosed PTSD, suffering from the mental trauma of military sexual abuse, or documenting possible exposure to chemical agents such as Agent Orange.
“We spend a tremendous amount of time in the medical world trying to understand all kinds of diseases that I didn’t even know existed,” says Ann, who also says that a typical veteran claim file contains up to 3,000 pages.
The full practice management experience
“We have this saying,” says Ann, “‘If it’s not in Clio, it doesn’t exist.’ And, I mean, it’s that important to us.”
Ann previously used a series of software services for document management, time keeping, and tracking communications, which was difficult since many of them were cumbersome to use. It was also difficult to keep track of documents and communications with respect to specific cases.
“Even with all the different platforms, I don’t think we could have ever saved everything that we needed to,” says Ann.
When Ann began her search for an all-in-one solution, she quickly adopted Clio. “I knew this was something that would really make a difference to us,” she says. Now the VAP is fully digitized and paperless, reviewing all of their project information in Clio.
As a program in the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, the VAP is tasked with educating its student volunteers on top of helping veterans. “One of the things we tell students is that they get case management software experience here that they will use later down the road. My goal with students is that when they finish with us, if they wanted to, they could set up their own practice.”
Even though the VAP works on a pro bono basis, students track all of their time to meet their educational requirements, and some of the project’s grant requests are based on time spent on cases. Communication is also critical, and Ann presses her staff to log detailed notes on all the work they do, so that the next person picking up the case won’t have problems.
For Ann, as a manager, she also relies on Clio to run reports to better understand caseloads. She says, “I run reports on what cases are open, which cases are pending, and I run them by supervising attorney and by student so I can really see what kind of caseload there is and what people are working on.”
With so many volunteers sharing the work in helping those veterans most in need of support, it’s important to Ann that her students can know the impact of their work—and how it affects people’s lives.
Among all of the information stored in Clio, the VAP also keeps a record of everyone who’s touched a case.
“That’s one of the hardest things, you know, when they won’t see the results from a case they do in a semester,” says Ann. “I keep a record in the notes section for each case in Clio of which students worked on that case. When we do get a decision I can go back and contact those students and let them know that their work really did pay off.”