Our Lawyer Spotlight series highlights Illinois lawyers who are demonstrating the ideals of professionalism in their daily lives. These attorneys are teaching us how to adapt and thrive in the changing legal environment.
Catherine Cornell is an attorney at The Veterans Practice, Ltd., where she handles VA disability compensation appeals for veterans. She also helps survivors of veterans obtain benefits if they are denied. Catherine practices at the administrative levels of appeal up to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
How is The Veterans Practice adapting to the changing work environment?
It’s amazing how little has changed in my practice given the widespread disruption COVID-19 has caused. I’ve been working remotely and going into the office a few times a week to get mail. Fortunately, I have a workspace at home and a laptop so I was able to relocate my practice without too much trouble.
I’m not meeting with clients face-to-face yet but have learned to accomplish pretty much everything via email, fax, mail, and phone calls. Many of my clients live out of state so I never meet them in person anyway.
The biggest change has been the addition of my kids to my work environment. While I do love seeing my kids more throughout the day, this health crisis has made the work-life separation a little harder to accomplish. I also have a new co-worker in my home office who I’ve had to get used to — our dog, Zoe, who I always threaten to fire for blatantly sleeping and even snoring on the job. Luckily for her, she is very cute.
What unique challenges are attorneys focused on helping veterans facing?
A lot of veterans have co-morbid disabilities and health conditions, which could make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Many of them also have mental health conditions that cause them to be fearful and paranoid about the safety of leaving their homes.
Because the VA has started to request in-person examinations in connection with appeals, I’ve had to run interference and make sure these are postponed, done via other means like telehealth, or get ahold of my clients to ensure they feel comfortable and safe going into a hospital or clinic.
How do you maintain civility in your practice during stressful situations?
I think it helps that I genuinely like and respect all of my clients and I would never dream of letting my stress get the better of me when I am talking with them. Veterans are the best client population I have ever worked with.
Also, at the forefront of my mind is the fact that my clients served our country and have lasting disabilities as a result. Many of them have had to overcome homelessness, addiction, and a lack of healthcare. They are often demoralized and overwhelmed by the time they get to me because they have been fighting for so long to secure their benefits and better their situations, so who am I to take out my stress on them?
When I get frustrated with people at the VA I remember that they too are dealing with a lot and are spread thin, and nothing positive ever comes from losing patience with people.
What long-term impacts will COVID-19 have on the legal profession?
Since it seems like more people have seen that working remotely is actually pretty smooth, I see more of that happening. The advocacy group I am part of (the National Organization of Veterans Advocates) just had a virtual conference that was done well and eliminated the need to travel or stay in a hotel, which a lot of people appreciated. I also think people may not greet each other in the same professional way we used to, with handshakes for example.
How are you maintaining your work-life balance during the pandemic?
As I explained above the work-life balance has been a little challenging. With school out now and summer camps canceled, my kids have more time on their hands. I made a schedule for them, which helps a lot and we have allowed them to start socializing with a few friends.
I also take time out of my workday to eat lunch or play a game with them so I don’t feel quite so guilty about ignoring them while I try to get my work done. Since I’m working at home, it’s harder to stop working because I’m not leaving an office, so I try to log out of my computer and step away for the night at a reasonable time every day.
Our Lawyer Spotlight recognizes attorneys throughout Illinois who are admired for their professionalism and civility. Check out more interviews with attorneys like Catherine Cornell here.