After our veterans return from combat or active duty, they can face a host of legal issues upon returning to the reality of home. From homelessness stemming from evictions and foreclosures to child custody disputes to problems with benefits, veterans can have various legal needs due to their lengthy separation from home and are in need of assistance. But there is help for these individuals and the legal community is making strides in assisting our veterans in these legal disputes.
On Lawyer 2 Lawyer, hosts J. Craig Williams and Bob Ambrogi join attorney Richard V. Spataro, director of training and publications for National Veterans Legal Services Program and Robert Liscord, veteran legal services outreach coordinator and paralegal for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, as they take a look at various legal issues facing our veterans. They will discuss legal needs and how attorneys and organizations are assisting veterans with their legal issues.
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Legal Issues Facing Our Veterans
Richard Spataro: I think just based on the sacrifices that they have made and what they have given to our country, they deserve that, they deserve attention from the legal community to help them get the benefits that they deserve and that they are entitled to.
Robert Liscord: Over the last five years there’s been a concerted effort by the VA to bring in community providers, including legal services, to work with veterans facing homelessness or veterans who are homeless to address the barriers they face to housing. It’s also important to recognize that these are veterans who, their service periods range back to World War II, all the way to present day.
The role of the community in addressing the needs of veterans and the commitment to that has really increased after 9/11 and we are playing catch up a little bit in terms of addressing the needs of also older veterans as well.
Intro: Welcome to the award-winning podcast Lawyer 2 Lawyer with J. Craig Williams and Robert Ambrogi, bringing you the latest legal news and observations with the leading experts in the legal profession. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
J. Craig Williams: Hello and welcome to Lawyer 2 Lawyer on the Legal Talk Network. I am Craig Williams, coming to you from Southern California. I write a blog called May It Please the Court. Bob!
Bob Ambrogi: And this is Bob Ambrogi coming to you from Boston, Massachusetts, where I write a blog called LawSites, and I also co-host another Legal Talk Network program called Law Technology Now with Monica Bay.
And before we introduce today’s topic let me just take a moment to thank our sponsor Clio. Clio is the world’s leading cloud-based legal practice management software. Thousands of lawyers and legal professionals trust Clio to help grow and simplify their practices. You can learn more about Clio at HYPERLINK “http://www.clio.com” clio.com.
And we probably should mention, they have got this big conference coming up September 19 and 20, the Clio Cloud Conference, which you can read about it at HYPERLINK “http://www.cliocloudconference.com” cliocloudconference.com. You are going to that, Craig?
J. Craig Williams: I am not, but I know you are Bob.
Bob Ambrogi: I am going to be there. I am going to be there.
J. Craig Williams: Representing, good for you. Well, Bob, after our veterans return from combat and active duty they can face a host of legal issues once they get back to the reality of home, from homelessness stemming from evictions and foreclosures, to child custody disputes, to problems with benefits. Veterans can have various legal needs due to their lengthy separation from home and are in need of assistance, and there’s a couple of projects out there that we are going to talk about today, including some of the suicide issues.
Bob Ambrogi: And increasingly there is help for those who have put in their lives on the line for the people of this country. The legal community has made strides in a number of ways in assisting our veterans in these legal disputes.
Today on Lawyer 2 Lawyer we are going to take a look at various legal issues facing veterans and discuss the legal needs and how attorneys and organizations are stepping up to assist veterans with their legal problems.
J. Craig Williams: Well, to do so Bob we have two guests. Our first guest today is attorney Richard Spataro. He is the Director of Training and Publications for the National Veterans Legal Services Program, better known as NVLSP. Rick is the Director of Outreach and Education for the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program as well and has represented hundreds of veterans before the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Before embarking on his legal career, attorney Spataro served as a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy so he knows what it’s like to be a veteran. Welcome to the show Rick.
Richard Spataro: Thank you. Thank you Bob and Craig for having me.
Bob Ambrogi: And next to join us today is Robert Liscord. Robert is the Veteran Services Coordinator and a Paralegal for the State of Maine’s largest civil legal aid provider Pine Tree Legal Assistance. Rob has presented on the value of social work-legal services collaborations at the state and national level-including at the 2015 National Coalition for Homeless Veterans Conference. In the spring of 2013, he co-authored a report entitled “Serving those Who Served: Understanding the Legal Needs of Maine’s Veteran Community”, Welcome to Lawyer 2 Lawyer Rob.
Robert Liscord: Great. Thank you much Bob and Craig.
Richard Spataro: And Bob, in the spirit of full disclosure I should also disclose that I am a veteran of the United States Coast Guard.
J. Craig Williams: Well, let’s talk about some of the legal issues facing veterans. Bob, can you give us a quick overview of what veterans face when they come back from combat duty and active duty?
Robert Liscord: Yeah, absolutely. So I think what we see a lot — so at Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Pine Tree being Maine’s largest civil legal aid provider, a lot of the issues that we see are, I think it’s important to recognize that veterans face many of the same civil legal issues that the general population faces, it just may have an additional layer related to their military service.
So for example, we regularly see individuals having issues with transitioning and job placement, debt collection and harassment, issues related to child support, ability to pay as they transition out and their income changes, and then of course issues related to housing, such as eviction and foreclosure, increasingly more common after the housing crisis that we had. Those are some of the largest issues that we see.
And then of course you have issues around veteran homelessness, where there’s a high rate of homelessness among veterans and over the last five years there’s been a concerted effort by the VA to bring in community providers, including legal services, to work with veterans facing homelessness or veterans who are homeless to address the barriers they face to housing.
It’s also important to recognize that these are veterans who, their service periods range back to World War II, all the way to present day. The role of the community in addressing the needs of veterans and the commitment to that has really increased after 9/11 and we are playing catch up a little bit in terms of addressing the needs of also older veterans as well.
Bob Ambrogi: One of the things, we have done a couple of shows in the past on veterans issues, not in the recent past, but years ago, one of the things that just brought this to the forefront again, at least in my mind, is that ABA just announced at its annual meeting in San Francisco a major effort, ABA President Linda Klein has said she is going to launch a major effort this year to mobilize lawyers on behalf of providing more and better legal services for the nation’s veterans.
Rick, I wondered from your perspective, what is it about veterans that requires us to give them kind of special attention within the legal community?
Richard Spataro: Well, I think just the fact that they have given their service to us as a nation and they have a tough time when they come back dealing with the VA disability system, that’s where my perspective comes from. The work I do is related to VA disability benefits primarily. And I think just based on the sacrifices that they have made and what they have given to our country, they deserve that, they deserve attention from the legal community to help them get the benefits that they deserve and that they are entitled to.
Bob Ambrogi: And is there a lack of services — if there aren’t services specializing on the legal needs of veterans, are there a lack of other services out there that would be available to assist them?
Richard Spataro: I think when it comes to the disability compensation system and the disability benefits system there are a lack of advocates. There is hundreds of thousands of veterans trying to seek benefits from the VA and a huge backlog in the VA system, and there’s just simply not enough attorneys or lay advocates to assist those veterans to meet the demand for services. And it’s a very difficult system to navigate. It’s overly bureaucratic. The VA is really a numbers-based system and navigating that system can be extremely difficult to do alone.
J. Craig Williams: What should veterans themselves be doing? Where do they need to go to find assistance with the issues that they face, and this is a nationwide problem?
Richard Spataro: I think that a good starting point for most veterans are Veteran Service Organizations, groups like The American Legion, Military Order of the Purple Heart. These are again lay advocates who assist veterans with the initial claims process, filing a claim, helping the veteran identify benefits to which they may be entitled. And that’s an excellent place to start rather than trying to go it alone.
NVLSP, the organization I work for, we do a lot of training of these lay advocates. We try to act as a force multiplier to educate them and enable them to better assist veterans. So that’s where I would point at veteran initially looking for VA benefits, work with a veteran’s advocate from one of those Veteran Service Organizations.
Bob Ambrogi: Rob, as I mentioned in the introduction, you in 2013 help do a survey in Maine evaluating the legal needs of veterans in that state. What did you find out?
Robert Liscord: Yeah, so what we found is we surveyed both veterans and service providers who work with them, because of our focus on low income veterans most of the veterans we surveyed were low income in some way. And the top needs that we saw from both service providers and veterans included problems accessing military benefits, such as VA benefits that Rick is talking about. Issues maintaining a job, maybe it’s they need a disability accommodation in a work setting, debt collection ranked very high, child visitation custody or support issues and divorce matters. And then the general kind of keeping government benefits broadly, so Social Security disability, food stamps, other public benefit programs.
The other piece that I think was really key and is one of the reasons why Pine Tree is really focused on partnering with social work agencies and the VA is we really found that service providers and veterans had a difficult time identifying the social issues they were facing as having a legal component.
The story I always share is of a social worker at the VA who used to ask veterans, do you have any legal problems, because they knew they were connected with Pine Tree, and the veterans’ response undoubtedly was, oh no, I don’t have any issues with the police.
And I think for most non-legal advocates that’s pretty much the perspective about the role of a lawyer. Of course, there’s a whole range of issues, including VA benefits, debt collection, eviction foreclosure where a lawyer can play a key role in supporting a veteran who is going through a tough time.
So a lot of our work has been around educating those providers who have been working with veterans for years on the legal resources available to assist veterans and hopefully increase their overall stability, their health, or make sure that they are able to stay in safe housing.
Bob Ambrogi: I know that one of the things that you have done, I don’t know if you were directly involved in this, is to — I know that Pine Tree was involved in launching the website called HYPERLINK “http://www.statesidelegal.org” statesidelegal.org, which I think was actually launched in a ceremony at the White House, is that correct?
Robert Liscord: Yes, absolutely.
Bob Ambrogi: How is that addressing either the service provider network or the veterans’ needs directly?
Robert Liscord: Absolutely. So as background, Stateside Legal was launched in 2010. It’s a project funded through Legal Services Corporation. And the goal of Stateside Legal is to provide a resource connecting veterans, service members and their families with the legal resources on the issues that affect them and the laws specific to their needs on a national basis.
So what we have done is we have built a whole host of education material specific for veterans, service members and their families, ranging from the issues of VA benefits, to Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, Fair Credit Reporting Act issues, and then also connecting those veterans with the local state level service providers who may actually be able to help them address those concerns if a legal issue arises.
And I would say to add to what Rick was saying in terms of where veterans can start, one place that we go with Stateside is, especially in the VA benefits world is, it is very important to know that there are resources so you don’t have to go through the process alone, but we are big advocates for making sure veterans are aware of the process and are empowered to understand the process themselves, to make sure that they are maximizing the benefits that they are eligible for and that they are asking the appropriate questions of the service organizations or the individuals who are working with them to make sure they are really aware of what they could be eligible for.
And so, Stateside has been accessed from all 50 states and around the world, because of course we engage with the service member network as well. And most recently we have really tried to build resources for social workers and advocates who work with veterans to make sure that they can access and are aware of the resources in each state that can help address either general civil legal needs or the military and veteran specific projects.
Lastly on Stateside, as I know we will be working with the NVLSP, and the Veterans Pro Bono Consortium to build some resources around the VA benefits appeal process to tap into the network of veterans who access the website already, and making sure they are aware of the appellate process that’s available to them if they are denied their claim at the initial stage.
Bob Ambrogi: Do you know if you will be working with the ABA’s initiative?
Robert Liscord: Yes. Yeah, so Pine Tree Legal and Stateside Legal were fortunate to be included in the ABA’s Legal Services Network Summit, which was coming together of providers who have been working with veterans for many years and trying to find creative solutions. Stateside Legal would be a part of that, but also we want to help support the ABA’s projects that they are going to develop on their own.
It’s really about sharing best practices across the country. There are some great programs either on the pro bono side, the legal services side or the information technology side, and making sure we are all aware of what we are doing to make sure that we don’t recreate the wheel when somebody has already built a great system.
J. Craig Williams: Rick, there are Veteran Service Organizations out here in California that are funded by the state and one in each county that provide additional services for veterans. One of the things I wanted to talk about was how the VA Administration deals with veterans, what’s the issue with the number of suicides that we are seeing with veterans, what kind of help do we need to put into place there?
Richard Spataro: Well, most states like California have County Service Officers who work on claims, they are typically state employees, and they often work with the national service organizations and assist veterans with filing claims.
Now, I can’t really speak — I don’t consider myself an expert on suicide-related issues and healthcare type issues, but I do know there is a big interplay with PTSD not being properly treated, not having enough healthcare options available for veterans who suffer from mental disorders, depression, and PTSD to be specific, and I think the VA is trying to do a better job at treating those veterans who suffer from those problems, but it is a continued problem.
I mean, I think that might be more of a — again, a medical side issue that needs to be addressed by the medical community, but advocates and attorneys can certainly help in referring veterans that they see may have problems related to mental disorders, especially related to the military service, and making sure that they do get the help they need.
Veterans are often very reluctant to seek help, just the nature of being in the military and being a veteran you think you are tough, you think you can handle things on your own, and I think it’s very important for advocates to let veterans know that they don’t have to be alone in fighting these mental disorders and shouldn’t be afraid to seek help.
Bob Ambrogi: We are going to continue our discussion in just a moment, but we are going to take a quick break first to hear a message from our sponsor. We will be right back. Stay with us.
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And welcome back to Lawyer 2 Lawyer. This is Bob Ambrogi and joining my co-host J. Craig Williams and I today are attorney Rick Spataro, Director of Training and Publications for the National Veterans Legal Services Project, and Robert Liscord, Veteran Services Coordinator and Paralegal at Pine Tree Legal Assistance.
I want to follow up a little bit on Craig’s question, because you were talking about some of the medical issues and specifically the question of suicide, but other medical issues that come up with veterans. What we are seeing in a lot of fields, in areas of legal services these days are sort of emergence of medical-legal partnerships based on the theory that medical problems often have a legal basis in some ways. If people don’t have proper housing or proper benefits it can lead to medical issues.
Rick, what’s being done with regard to veterans’ legal help in terms of medical-legal partnerships, if you know?
Richard Spataro: Well, our organization National Veterans Legal Services Program and specifically our Lawyers Serving Warriors Program is actually in the process of developing a relationship and a network of psychiatrists, psychologists, medical professionals in the mental health community to assist veterans, particularly with obtaining VA benefits.
I know it’s a work in progress. I believe it’s off the ground. I am not the director of that program by any means, but that our goal through that program is to help — these providers will not only treat, but more specifically provide medical opinions in support of disability claims. That way the veteran won’t have to rely on VA medical professionals, they can prepare a claim in advance, get a medical opinion supporting their claim, get everything prepared so the claim will be granted quicker rather than relying on the VA to do its development of the claim. That’s one thing that our Lawyers Serving Warriors Program is in the process of doing.
Robert Liscord: And I would go ahead and add that Pine Tree Legal this past fall launched a new medical-legal partnership with our VA system here in Maine, and we have been in touch with the VA General Counsel’s Office around these legal clinics with the VA. And what we are looking at nationally is there are 75 legal clinics that are co-located in VA facilities, or they were, and now we are jumping to 125 as of 2016. And ton of those are officially what are called medical-legal partnerships, which is a model that existed outside of the veteran community for some time, where lawyers work with the physicians to look at the social issues that may have a legal component that are affecting a client’s health.
And I will give an example, I don’t want to pretend that legal services can address the mental health concerns of veterans solely, but there is definitely a role to play. Our medical-legal attorney shares a story where a veteran had come into his mental health provider with a high level of anxiety and some triggering symptoms related to stressors in his personal life and his financial life, and when the physician started probing into what was going on and saying, well, I can prescribe you some additional anti-anxiety medication, what the veteran shared with the provider was that, no, I don’t really want more medication. I am not able to afford my mortgage or I am really stressed about this potential foreclosure that I am going to go through.
And so then the role of these medical-legals is to identify those issues and help providers think of those issues as the social and legal issues that they are and then refer those veterans in a timely way to the legal services provider to help address that underlying social or legal issue that’s affecting the mental health or physical health of a client.
It’s a really emergent model that the VA General Counsel’s Office is in big support of, which we really appreciate in terms of overcoming and helping us work through the issues that go along with partnering with a medical facility with regards to HIPAA and other concerns, and it has been really exciting to see where that’s been going.
J. Craig Williams: Rob, how do we reach out to homeless veterans, it’s a serious problem and probably the most underserved contingent of the community?
Robert Liscord: Yeah. So every year there’s something called the Point-in-Time count organized by HUD, where they count all the homeless individuals across the states, and in Maine what we have found is that you can do a traditional count, which is just counting those in the shelters, but in rural states like Maine, veterans have come to a state like Maine because they don’t want to be in a shelter setting and they are camping out in the woods.
So there’s many different ways to connect with veterans, but I think the number one way that service providers can connect with the veteran community is if a service provider or legal service office is not asking the question do you have military experience or have you served in the military, you are missing an opportunity to serve that client population.
I give the example at Pine Tree, we started screening for that back in 2010 and immediately we saw that about 7% or 8% of our client population were already veterans. Now, these are veterans who are facing things like eviction and homelessness.
More broadly, I think it’s really important that the service providers who are asking these questions and are screening for veteran services are both veteran specific agencies, like the VSOs that Rick mentioned, but also your traditional homeless service providers who may not have a veteran specific focus, but really have a role to play in serving a population that our veterans that have earned certain benefits through the military service, but maybe because of something that happened when they got back from their deployments or their service, as is very common with Vietnam veterans, they don’t want to think about themselves as a veteran so they don’t identify in that way.
But asking those questions and being present in places that are more traditional community settings can go a long way to identifying veterans who have long-forgotten about their military service and are homeless, because they are not accessing the resources available to them.
Bob Ambrogi: A lot of veterans I assume are not going to qualify for legal services help or pro bono help necessarily, they might fall into that kind of low bono category, where they can’t quite qualify for legal services, but they can’t afford a lawyer themselves.
Rick, does your organization help in that situation? What kinds of legal resources are available to veterans who fall into that low bono gap?
Richard Spataro: Sure. NVLSP, we don’t have a specific income requirement for the veterans we assist, but most of our work is related to appeals at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. So we don’t get involved in a lot of the same issues that Pine Tree does, related to the homelessness, related to the initial VA claims process. So luckily, again, we don’t have any kind of income requirement.
As far as the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program, who also handles cases at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, there is an income requirement there, but I think that a lot of attorneys out there who want to get involved in veterans law, I don’t think that the income of the veteran should be an important issue to them.
I mean, whether you are currently a poor veteran or a rich veteran you still sacrificed, you still — you put yourself in harm’s way by volunteering to be a soldier or a sailor and I think that — I don’t think the income is that important to many attorneys, so I just would encourage any attorney who wants to get involved in assisting veterans that I hope that’s not a major concern for them.
Bob Ambrogi: Does your program provide training to lawyers who do want to get involved, who may not have the background and benefits that they might need?
Richard Spataro: We do actually, and that’s one of the things I primarily work on. I keep on mentioning Veteran Service Officers, who are lay advocates, and we do a lot of training of those people, those advocates, but we also train attorneys as well. We conduct training for lots of legal service providers throughout the country. We provide webinars open to any attorney who is interested in veterans’ law. We do training for both attorneys and lay advocates.
Bob Ambrogi: We have a lot of lawyers who listen to the show and some of them want to get involved in representing veterans and helping veterans, where should they go? Who should they call?
Richard Spataro: I think a great place to start is with the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program. That’s an organization where individuals can volunteer to assist the veteran at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. They will be trained. We provide training. We provide a full day of training for those attorneys in the backgrounds of veterans’ law, the VA appeals process and claims process, navigating the court system as well. So it’s a good way to jump into the veterans’ law area of practice.
And then you are assigned a case that has been screened by the Consortium and you are assigned a mentor. There’s a lot of handholding and really it’s a great way to get involved and learn about veterans’ law.
And then, one of the goals of the Consortium is to increase the number of attorneys who practice veterans’ law, again, another force multiplier effect. We hope that by walking you through your first case, giving you training, then you will take that training and represent veterans on your own and assist veterans. So that’s one way the Consortium provides training.
NVLSP also works with, through our Lawyers Serving Warriors Program with lots of big law firms. We have a similar program which is more focused at placing cases at the agency level rather than the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. We train attorneys in many of these big firms we have partnerships with. Those attorneys volunteer their time to assist the veterans, at the agency level, at the VA, at the lower level, claims process rather than the high court level appeals.
J. Craig Williams: Well gentlemen, it’s just about the end of our show here. So we would like to wrap up and get your final thoughts along with your contact information for our listeners and maybe even speak to how individuals who are not attorneys can get involved and help veterans.
So Rick, let’s start with you.
Richard Spataro: Sure. I guess my final thoughts would be veterans do have a difficult time navigating this complicated bureaucracy of the VA. And one of the biggest problems we see is veterans not knowing what they are entitled to, and as an advocate, as an attorney, as a lay advocate you can — one of our goals is to help you to help a veteran identify what benefits they might be entitled to.
A lot of times they are fixated on PTSD, because that’s been in the news, but they have other disabilities that they might be entitled to benefits for that they don’t even know about, and due to the complicated legal rules it’s very important to have trained advocates and trained lawyers to help veterans identify those benefits.
So I would hope that we get interest of more attorneys to practice veterans’ law to assist those who have sacrificed so much for our country.
My contact information is HYPERLINK “[email protected]” [email protected], and you can contact me with respect to our work at NVLSP and the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program, and I hope that hopefully I will hear from some of you. Thank you.
J. Craig Williams: Great. And Rob.
Robert Liscord: Yeah. I think I would echo a lot of Rick’s comments in terms of knowledge about eligibility. For non-attorneys, being aware of your state agencies that can have — the state VSO organizations, the State Bureaus of Veteran Services, and if you know a veteran or a service member, encourage them just to sit down with that person to determine eligibility and then support that veteran in making sure they follow through with the process.
For attorneys I would say, I echo Rick’s concern and the need for working with veterans specific to their claims, especially in the area related to discharge upgrades, related to posttraumatic stress or military sexual trauma.
But I would also say too, if you are an attorney and you are feeling like you can’t take on a new practice area at this time for your pro bono or you are paying work, I think it’s just important to recognize that veterans and their families face many of the same legal challenges that the general community does and your expertise in family law, consumer work, bankruptcy, housing issues or corporate nonprofit development, there’s a real role to play in supporting our veterans and military community within your practice areas as well. So I strongly encourage folks to reach out to their state Pro Bono Program and express an interest in working with veterans specifically. They definitely can be put to use even within your practice area if taking on a new area is not something you can do at this time.
For my contact information people are welcome to reach out to me. I am happy to get people in touch with other advocates in other states that we are connected with as well. And my contact information is HYPERLINK “[email protected]” [email protected], PTLA Standing for Pine Tree Legal Assistance. Thank you so much for the time today and for the listeners listening in.
Bob Ambrogi: I would just like to thank both of you for the really important work that you are doing and also for taking the time to be with us today. I really appreciate it.
J. Craig Williams: And Bob, before we end the show I just want to add one more thing for California veterans, you can now get your veteran designation on your California State Driver’s License, if you go to the local county Veterans Services Office.
Bob Ambrogi: Great. Thanks. Well, we have been talking with Richard V. Spataro, Director of Training and Publications for the National Veterans Legal Services Program and Robert Liscord, the Veteran Services Coordinator and Paralegal for Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine. Thanks a lot to both of you for taking the time to be with us today.
Richard Spataro: Thank you.
Robert Liscord: Thank you so much.
J. Craig Williams: Great. For our listeners, thanks for listening! Join us next time for a great legal topic. When you want legal, think Lawyer 2 Lawyer.
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