Many of the service organizations, such as the VFW, American Legion, AMVETS and Disabled Veterans of America, have well trained, competent, and compassionate service officers ready to take on even the most complex claims. However, many of those well trained service officers are just simply overwhelmed with their work load and do not have the time either to take on new claims, or devote the time they would like to with some of their current ones. Also there are some service officers through these service organizations that are, well to put it mildly, not so well trained and competent. Some of these service officers are well meaning, but simply lack the knowledge of the basic laws, rules, and regulations governing VA and how the claims system works. In the long run they can actually hurt a claimant's claim. To become an accredited service officer for one of the veterans' organization, an individual is suppose to undergo training by someone within that organization already knowledgeable in the VA claims system (generally some type of weekend seminar), and then the organization is suppose to submit VA form 21 to the Office of the General Counsel for recognition. However, many times the training is very inadequate, or the service organization doesn't submit the name of the individual to VA for accreditation.
An attorney can become accredited by VA to represent veterans simply by submitting VAF 21a and certifying they are in good standing with their state bar. The Office of the General Counsel will generally approve their accreditation within a short period of time as long they haven't been suspended by their State bar for any infractions. Whether that attorney is knowledgeable in 38 C.F.R. and knows how the VA claims system works is another matter. There are a few attorneys who do specialize only in VA claims, but you'll be hard pressed to find one who will help you with an initial claim because they can't charge a fee for it. Most of the accredited attorneys will only take a case if it's in the appeals stage so they can charge a veteran up to 20% (and in some cases up to 33%) of any retroactive benefits obtained as a fee. Also attorneys can collect a fee from the U.S. Government under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) if they produce a remand either from BVA or the CAVA. A remand by either the BVA or the CAVA doesn't necessarily mean the claimant was awarded their claim for benefits, it just means that there was
Anyone who is not accredited by VA's Office of the General Counsel and is assisting, advising, or otherwise helping veterans prepare their claim, is operating illegally. Everyone who is accredited by VA to assist and represent veterans are listed HERE. This list is updated three times a week. So if someone is assisting a veteran with their claim but isn't on that list, then they are doing so illegally and are risking prosecution by VA's Office of the General Counsel!
I am an accredited "claims agent." Whether it's an initial claim for service-connected disability, pension, or some other type of benefit, or an appeal all the way to the BVA in Washington, D.C. I can represent a veteran regardless of where they are in the claims stage.