Deciding whether you want, or even need, someone to represent you with your claim before VA is a big decision. Many veterans are very weary of putting their livelihood in someone else's hands they hardly know, and many veterans have simply had a bad experience with someone previously representing them and their claim before VA. Finding competent representation, either through one of the veterans' service organizations, an accredited individual (as my self), or an accredited attorney, can be a daunting task in and of itself.
There are three ways a veteran can seek representation before VA; through one of the many service organizations such as the VFW, American Legion, AMVETS etc..., through an accredited Attorney, or through an accredited individual (known as a "claims agent" within VA).
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 workload 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, 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 VAF 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 something the BVA or CAVA saw which warranted further attention. This could mean further development of obtaining additional medical records, or just to correct a procedural error by the office of original jurisdiction.
An accredited individual, or called a "Claims Agent" by VA, is an individual who has passed an extensive back ground check by VA, had character references verified, and passed a comprehensive exam testing one's knowledge of VA laws, rules, regulations, and case law. An actual claims agent is relatively rare. Most individuals, who want to actually help veterans with their claims, go the much easier route of joining a service organization and becoming a service officer through them. There are only a hand full of actual claims agents accredited by VA, and the vast majority of them either work for an assisted living facility, insurance company, or an attorney. Many claims agents who work for an assisted living facility or an insurance company aren't really there to assist a veteran in filing a claim. Sure they'll help an elderly veteran file a claim for Pension, but many times their real motive is to get that veteran to rearrange their countable assets into some type of insurance policy, or something similar, in order to get that veteran to qualify for the Pension benefit. Thus, their motive is to sell a policy. Also many claims agents will only help a veteran with filing an appeal in order to obtain a fee for their services, just as attorneys do. Many won't even discuss filing an initial claim with VA because there isn't any money to be earned! As I stated before, U.S. Federal Law prohibits claims agents and attorneys from charging a fee for filing initial claims. They are only allowed to charge a fee after the claimant has filed a Notice of Disagreement, and that has to have been after June 20, 2008.
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.
In order for me to represent you before VA, we both need to sign VAF 21-22a. This form is the only form of power of attorney VA recognizes for individual representation. Any other form of power of attorney, regardless of the issuing authority, is not valid for VA purposes.