Alumnus shares journey from the National Guard to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Jonathan Morris’ law school career got off to an atypical start than most incoming JD students. A former member of the Ohio National Guard, Morris ’14 was shipped out to Oklahoma for basic training at Fort Sill halfway through his 1L year.
Morris enrolled at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law with intentions of eventually joining the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG Corps) after graduation. His call to serve his country was inspired in part by his family’s lengthy history of military service. Morris’ grandfather, a United States Navy veteran and accomplished boxer, served during World War II.
An unfortunate glitch in his paperwork at Fort Sill would have caused him to miss yet another semester at Moritz, however. Rather than risk his chances of graduating, Morris moved back to Columbus instead. With the understanding and support of the college’s faculty, he was able to catch up on his 1L and 2L course requirements and graduated with his JD right on schedule.
“There were always people here who made me feel like they wanted me to be here,” Morris said. “You just don’t get that same feeling of family or togetherness that you get from Ohio State.”
Morris didn’t become a judge advocate, but in the same spirit of serving his country, he joined the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as associate counsel in 2016 for the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA). Earlier this year he became an appellate litigation attorney in the Office of General Counsel.
“Everything I do, every day, has a direct impact on the lives of our country’s veterans,” he said. “It’s truly a rewarding experience.”
Morris represents the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in litigation filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC). He conducts litigation primarily involving appeals from decisions of the BVA, and occasionally, involving petitions for relief under the All Writs Act.
“My first interaction with veterans law came from conducting pro bono appellate litigation on behalf of a veteran claimant before CAVC,” Morris said. “My experience in one particular case prompted me to seek out opportunities to impact a larger number of veterans. During my time at the Board, I was able to become a subject matter expert in VA disability benefits law, and my success at BVA allowed me an opportunity to change roles in the VA appeals process.”
As associate counsel, Morris conducted de novo review of appeals involving VA disability compensation and other benefits. When the regional office renders a decision on a disability claim with which the applicant disagrees, the applicant has the option to appeal the claim to the BVA. The BVA then takes a new look at the claim and supporting evidence and issues a final decision.
It was high-pressure, high-production work: The BVA has well over 100,000 pending appeals, and each appeal can have a number of individual claims of its own. A vast majority of appeals involve compensation benefit claims, in addition to housing, education, disability, vocational rehabilitation, and healthcare benefits. The experience has allowed Morris to become a subject matter expert in VA disability benefits law, he said.
Morris also serves as a campaign manager for the National Capital Area of the Combined Federal Campaign, one of the largest workplace charity campaigns in the world. With the help of more than 100 volunteers, he raised just over $500,000 in donations this year for his region.
He recommends that law students seek out practical, hands-on legal experience as much as possible, as he believes that the Moritz’s selection of legal clinics has been instrumental to his ongoing success with the VA. The amount of exposure and experience afforded by clinics—especially given the college’s central location in Columbus, the state capital—is unparalleled to other law schools, he said. Morris participated in four clinics himself: The Mediation Clinic, the Justice for Children Clinic, the Legislation Clinic, and the Entrepreneurial Business Law Clinic.
“One of the things I know recent graduates are finding out, and that I found out as a new attorney, is that it’s all about experience,” Morris said. “In the Justice for Children Clinic, you’re helping somebody navigate through the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status process, or in the Mediation Clinic, you’re going down to court and you’re helping resolve actual disputes. In the Entrepreneurial Business Law Clinic, it was great helping students with their trademark applications and being able to see their ideas blossom into a business. It was probably the best part of law school, in my opinion.”