Seth Neulight is an experienced labor and employment lawyer, but he’s also a navigator for veterans caught in a sea of bureaucracy.
The partner in Nixon Peabody’s San Francisco office discovered his legal skills were a “natural fit” when he volunteered at Swords to Plowshares, a Northern California non-profit service organization for veterans that includes a vibrant pro bono program.
Neulight has volunteered his services to numerous veterans, and he profoundly changed the life of one who faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles in proving his disability was service-connected.
“We can help veterans who know little or nothing about how to navigate those bureaucracies to get the benefits they’re looking for,” said Neulight, the recipient of Swords to Plowshares’s Pro Bono Attorney of the Year award in September.
PODCAST : Nixon Peabody’s Seth Neulight Clears Legal Path for Disabled Veteran: Volunteered for the pro bono program of Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco Bay Area veterans assistance group, and profoundly changed a disabled veteran’s life for the better.
His client was sexually assaulted during basic training. The incident triggered post-traumatic stress disorder that nearly wrecked the veteran’s life.
The vet didn’t immediately report the incident, Neulight said, and that hampered his efforts to prove to the Department of Veterans Affairs that he deserved disability benefits.
He was, in effect, trying to prove his PTSD was service-connected without any contemporaneous records to back him up.
Neulight took the case and met that challenge head-on.
“We had to reconstruct it to show changes in his behavior, the discipline he suffered in the military, and the whole pattern of issues that befell him in later years even after he got out of the military, and link that back to the assault incident,” Neulight said.
The victory was a “life-changing event” for the vet, now in his late 40s, and Neulight remembers when he delivered the news.
“I had the privilege of calling him one day to let him know that his claim had finally been accepted and that he was going to get a retro payment of around $120,000 or $130,000, and would be getting something like $3,600 a month in disability payments,” Neulight said.
But he also recalled how the vet saw something beyond the benefits.
“What was poignant for me, and while he was extremely appreciative of the money he would be receiving, he was just as appreciative of the fact that I took the time to represent him, and took the time to listen to him, and helped him to finally be believed,” Neulight said.
Neulight sings the praises of Swords to Plowshares, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that provides health, housing, employment, legal, and other support services for veterans and their families.
Nixon Peabody encourages its attorneys to spend at least 60 hours a year on pro bono work, “and one of the areas of focus identified across the firm was veterans work,” Neulight said.
Swords to Plowshares provides a robust pro bono program in which 35 Northern California law firms and in-house counsel participate, according to Cathy Wong, staff attorney and manager of the program.
“Most of the lawyers we work with are corporate and transactional attorneys and litigators from large law firms, and in-house counsel at large companies in the Bay Area,” Wong said.
The organization also offers a six-hour training module that covers the basics of veterans benefits and discharge upgrades and ensures that volunteer lawyers meet the VA’s accreditation standards for advocates.
For Neulight, lawyers are vital to helping veterans cut through mounds of red tape that can impede valid benefits claims.
Pro bono work also offers lawyers the opportunity to have a direct beneficial effect on another person’s life not always evident in a corporate or in-house counsel environment, Neulight said.
“My day-to-day work is representing companies in labor and employment matters, and there certainly are moments and times when I feel gratification at a professional level,” Neulight said. “But doing the kind of work that allows you to make a profound impact on an individual’s life, for me, is an incredible experience.”
Swords to Plowshares also showed Neulight that pro bono service has a meaning beyond the needs of each client.
“We have an all-volunteer military,” Neulight said. “People raise their hand. They agree to serve in the military and serve our country. The shame of it is that so many of these veterans come back and finish their service and they aren’t treated well.”
For Neulight, his efforts are a “small way of honoring their service and, by extension, serving the country.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Steven M. Sellers in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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