Kathy Diener is an attorney who specializes in helping veterans who are seeking disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Kathy brings the expertise and experience needed to navigate the appeals process when benefit claims are denied (VA regulations don’t allow veterans to hire an attorney until then). To a lesser extent she also represents veterans who got less than an honorable discharge and who want to petition the military tribunals for an upgrade.
Her path to this career – and her own company – began as many do, at the point of a life pivot.
Drawn to the appeal of world travel and financial stability, she left art school where she was studying to be to be a film maker and joined the Air Force. She loved it so much, she re-enlisted after four years, serving a total of seven years.
When she left, she knew she wanted a career where she could have an impact. She earned a degree in humanities and went on to earn a Doctor of Law (J.D.). Then she went to work for the VA, where she saw, first hand, the plight of veterans. In 2013, she launched her solo practice. It’s been growing ever since.
Kathy works strictly on a contingency basis, collecting the VA’s guidance of 20% of back benefits only if a case is won. She works directly with clients to appeal cases administratively, going to court only when those administrative efforts fail.
One of the cases she’s most proud of was done pro bono. While at a Vet Fest, she met a veteran who had been living in transitional housing with no income at all. He was in dire straits. His case was not yet in appeal, the point at which she takes cases, but her heart went out to him. During their discussions she learned he had a health condition he had never reported – one that would mean greater benefits. He went from getting no benefits at all to a 50% disability rating. This was huge because if you are rated by VA at under 50% disability, you cannot receive your military retirement pay and your VA disability pay. Once you hit that 50% rating level, that offset goes away and you can receive both military retired pay and your VA disability pay.
Kathy has also been an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she assisted in teaching graduate clinical program, including classroom instruction and field work. When she’s not focusing on law, Kathy enjoy road trips, movies, and unsolved mysteries – preferably all at the same time.
Why We Love Kathy
We love Kathy’s journey to discovering how she can earn a living doing something that helps others while also allowing her the flexibility and autonomy she wanted. When she completed law school she knew she wasn’t interested in going to work for a big law firm and getting on the treadmill of billable hours and the climb to a partnership. Kathy told us, “I never thought of veterans law as a career path in law school, but I’m happy that things turned out this way. I am fortunate to have a somewhat unusual specialty that has allowed me to create a very flexible practice. I can work from just about anywhere and on my own schedule, so I still get to travel.”
Q&A with Kathy:
We say members of Cowork Frederick are “status-quo disrupters, a little renegade, a little unconventional”. How does that apply to you?
I have always preferred to do things on my own time, and I chafe under what seem to me to be arbitrary rules, the kind that are imposed in large organizations that need to keep everything uniform. Most of the time I would prefer to work from 2 – 10 instead of 9-5. This is what I enjoy most about working for myself. I still have obligations and deadlines, but I have the freedom to organize my time and space in a way that makes sense.
What about your career fulfills you and keeps you going?
Of course, there’s the part about helping others who have served our country. I also love to travel. I was able to do a good bit of international travel when I was in the Air Force, and that is something I still look forward to, but road trips have always been my favorite. Over the past few years I’ve taken a few long road trips. Sometimes I just need to get away for two or three days to change the scenery and recharge. It helps to keep my head clear and gives me energy that benefits my work.
Which of the 8 guiding values defined by Cowork Frederick members speaks to you?
Honestly, while I see value in all of them, for me it goes beyond any of them. For example, it’s not just about tenacity and not giving up, it’s about bringing expertise to a situation so the work is effective. All too often I see veterans who put in a lot of effort filing for every possible benefit whether they know they qualify or not. That’s a lot of work. I help them work smarter, focusing efforts where they are most likely to be successful.
Any tips to share with veterans seeking benefits?
A lot of people apply for benefits for a specific disability without gathering enough evidence. When it is denied, they begin filing multiple claims in desperation. It is much better to focus on the more serious disabilities that began in service and get all the evidence together to make a successful claim. A veterans service organization (VSO) like American Legion or VFW can provide free help. If the claim is denied anyway, then get an attorney!