Shana Zipkin Siesser sees herself as a DIY type of person. As a lawyer with the Board of Appeals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the 36-year-old Miami native drafts decisions for veterans’ appeals of compensation claims. When veterans are denied claims for benefits, they can appeal those denials. Siesser works with the agency’s administrative law judges, who rule on the appeal.
Siesser lives in Silver Spring with her husband, Daniel, and their four children.
What do you do in your line of work?
When a veteran files claims for benefits, whether they’ve injured themselves as a result of injuries in battle or contracted a disease in service, [the claims] are made at a regional office level. If they don’t get what they want, they have the right to appeal to an administrative body of judges, so that’s known as the veterans’ Board of Appeals, and that’s where I work.
So when we hear of backlog problems with the VA, where is that coming from?
It’s really because there are a lot of veterans and there has been a lot of military service and a lot of wars recently. A lot of people are developing new sorts of cancers many years after they’ve left [military] service. Those claims have gotten more complicated. Many people are seeking medical treatment, and that medical help wasn’t there decades ago.
What’s it like working at the VA now?
I find it fulfilling. Veterans, unfortunately, have very difficult lives when they exit service. They have a lot of sad stories. The ones who are obviously injured during service or disabled due to injury don’t get appealed because they’ve already been granted [benefits, and there is no need for appeal]. But we do see some of the subtler cases, such as veterans who develop cancers after they’ve left Vietnam, and they say it’s due to Agent Orange, or exposure to [something similar].
Would you break down a particular claim?
There are different types of claims, and the vast majority that we do is for disabilities. So, if a veteran was running and injured his knee and treated [while in military] service for a knee disorder, and now he continues to have problems, he can receive a certain degree of compensation. So you go to federal regulations, which basically say, “If you can bend your knee X degrees, then you’re entitled to 10 percent compensation. If you can bend it Y degrees, then you’re entitled to 20 percent compensation.” And we assign ratings based on those factors.
What drove you to being a lawyer to begin with?
My dad’s an attorney. He’s a sole practitioner, and a lot of what he does is criminal defense work. When I first went to law school, I thought that all lawyers just went to court every day.
Would you go into specificity about your background and your initial experiences in law?
I went to law school at the University of Miami, but I came to D.C. for an internship at the federal probation office after the summer of my first year. I worked on sentencing reports. I realized that most lawyers don’t go to court trial very often. Most are done through paperwork, and most lawyers in litigation are in the office most of the time.
Where was your first paid job in Washington?
In 2004, I started at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates nuclear material. It’s a government agency, and they have a program there called the Honor Law Grad Program, so they hire law school graduates.
How long were you there?
I had been there for about a year and a half, and then something came up to be a clerk. Clerkship is a nice opportunity, so I took it and worked in the Office of Special Masters, which focuses on vaccine compensation claims. I had a wonderful experience working there. It was really great to understand how government works and how agencies work.
Does working as a government employee ever become disenchanting due to its bureaucracy?
I think you accept that to some degree when you decide to work for the government. There are restrictions, but there are a lot of restrictions [anywhere]. We do our best to protect our veterans. They are entitled to the utmost respect and appreciation for their service.