IOLTA Feature

Reaching Out to the Nation’s Veterans

Veterans are among the neediest populations in the US and are plagued by a host of legal issues.  Programs throughout the country funded by IOLTA have stepped in the gap to provide services and rally the legal community to help returning service men and women. Even with limited revenue, IOLTA programs have dedicated funding to veterans’ projects in several states to provide legal assistance.

The Need

There are 23.7 million veterans in the United States, equaling 10.4% of all Americans.1 Many of these individuals lack basic necessities, such as shelter, food and health care.  Factors such as the present economy, physical disability, substance abuse and mental illness have left many veterans with dire needs. 

Housing is an issue that many of these men and women face; more than 150,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.2  One quarter of all homeless people in the US are veterans which is nearly twice the rate of homelessness in the general public.  Additionally, 1.5 million veterans in America are considered at risk of homelessness.  Not only do risk factors include poverty and lack of adequate supportive services, legal problems serve as obstacles to stable housing, as well.

Veterans are entitled to benefits, but many have trouble obtaining them.  801,881 claims are pending today at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 37,405 more than at the start of 2011. Over 464,963 of those claims have been pending for more than 125 days.3  Some veterans' claims take as long as ten years to reach a conclusion.4  However, statistics show that a veteran represented by an attorney receives up to $6,225 more per year in entitlements than a veteran without representation.5

Disability benefits are equally cumbersome to obtain for the 5.5 million veterans with disabilities6. The VA takes an average of four and a half years to process veterans' disability benefits claims and appeals. The VA estimates that veterans currently seeking disability benefits wait an average of nearly six months for an initial decision on their claims.7

In order to begin to meet the legal needs of the nation’s veterans, IOLTA programs have dedicated funds to providing help with veterans’ issues.  With IOLTA dollars, projects and legal services in many states are able to offer different approaches to reach out and provide much needed legal assistance to veterans.  Highlighted below is a sampling of these veterans programs.

South Carolina

South Carolina is home to the Charleston Air Force Base, Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, and Fort Jackson in Columbia, known as the Army’s largest initial entry training center in the US. These bases create a significant military presence in their cities, including many under served veterans. In order to assist the large military population, the South Carolina Bar Foundation uses IOLTA funds to support several projects to reach out to veterans and assist them in obtaining benefits and services to meet their needs.

The South Carolina Legal Services’ (SCLS) Public Benefits Task Force recognized the needs of veterans and hired a lead veteran’s benefit attorney. A veteran himself, this lawyer was able to recognize the unique legal problems of veterans that are often unknown to attorneys with no military experience.  He was then able to explore approaches to specifically address those issues.  Though that lawyer has been called to serve in Iraq, SCLS continues to focus on veterans.  

Eleven SCLS attorneys have been certified by the VA to handle VA benefits cases.  In an effort to support these lawyers, staff have created a “brief bank” which houses briefs, memoranda of law, and demand letters used in public benefits/ income maintenance and employment cases.  In order to allow lawyers from all SCLS offices access to the information regardless of their location or area of expertise, the brief bank is housed on the staff portal of the SCLS website.

To further reach out to veterans, SCLS staff from the Columbia and Charleston offices attend Stand Down events8 throughout the year.  There staff provide immediate assistance through consultation.  They also provide brochures which address legal issues such as veterans’ benefits and appeals, understanding the VA claim process, and requesting copies of military records.  Stand Downs also offer an opportunity to promote the availability of SCLS resources for more extensive legal problems. 

SCLS also partners with several national organizations that serve veterans.  The public benefits task force and the Columbia office work with “Fast Forward”, a non-profit training center that prepares veterans for technology jobs. This collaboration is primarily focused on homeless female veterans to assist them in addressing their housing and employment needs.  In addition, SCLS works with Project Salute which is a mobile law office created by the University Of Michigan Mercy School Of Law.  In these mobile offices, law students and lawyers provide assistance to veterans in obtaining VA benefits.  They travel to various cities throughout the country, Columbia, Sumter and Charleston being frequent stops. When they arrive, Project Salute volunteers provide veterans and SCLS clients with workshops on obtaining VA benefits and SCLS staff take local referrals.

Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Bar Foundation, which administers IOLTA, provides funding for the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Veteran’s Pro Bono Initiative, which began in 2007. This initiative offers three programs that reach out to veterans.  The Veterans’ Dial-A-Lawyer Program offers veterans opportunities to speak with an attorney for free brief advice on any legal issue. While the Dial-A-Lawyer program is offered weekly to the greater community, twice annually it is offered exclusively to veterans.  The Veterans’ Benefits Appeal Pro Bono Program provides training for pro bono lawyers enabling them to obtain certification to represent veterans before the VA.  These certified volunteers are then able to take cases from the project’s intake line. Finally, in the Veterans’ Visiting Lawyers Program, pro bono attorneys travel to veterans’ service agencies to provide brief assistance with legal issues.

IOLTA also funds Shelter Legal Services (SLS) in Massachusetts.  In this program, law students and volunteer lawyers partner to conduct legal clinics at local shelters and agencies serving veterans.  SLS reaches out to those who are homeless by going to shelters and service agencies that veterans are likely to seek. Though these shelters do not exclusively serve veterans, many of their clients are veterans due to the disproportionate number of homeless in this population.  Here lawyers and law students work together, but each has distinct roles.  The pro bono lawyers provide brief counsel at the clinics; they also accept referrals in their area of specialization and mentor law school students.  The law students receive training from SLS staff then meet with clients for initial interviews; they then work with an on-site supervising attorney to provide legal assistance. 

Texas

In Houston, Dallas and Austin volunteer lawyers have been enlisted to participate in the Veterans Legal Initiative (VLI), which receives IOLTA funding from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. In this program, attorneys conduct legal clinics to provide assistance to low income veterans on a variety of legal issues, including but not limited to VA entitlements. Like SLS in Massachusetts, these pro bono lawyers reach out to veterans by traveling to sites where services are offered and veterans reside.  The clinics are held every Friday afternoon at the VA Medical Center and regularly at two other permanent residences for veterans.

At the clinics, volunteer attorneys provide legal advice and intake for veterans on various issues.  Lawyers advise on topics ranging from obtaining VA entitlements to family law, landlord/tenant, estate planning, probate, and disability. If a case qualifies for pro bono representation, VLI volunteers assist the veteran in retaining the appropriate pro bono attorney. In addition to counseling individuals, these lawyers make group presentations at each clinic site. These presentations are designed to raise awareness on topics relevant to veterans; lawyers have addressed issues such as identity theft, disability, bankruptcy and creditor’s rights, elder law, estate planning and family law.

Maryland

The Maryland Legal Services Corporation provides IOLTA funding to the Homeless Persons Representation Project, which initiated the Veterans’ Benefits Project (VBP).  According to the Homeless Persons Representation Project, Maryland has one of the lowest levels of compensation to veterans for their service and one of the highest numbers of homeless veterans.9  The VBP was created in response to these statistics and to date is the only project in Maryland dedicated to using legal services to reduce homelessness among veterans. Having a small staff, the project enlisted volunteer attorneys to assist the greatest number of veterans possible.  The staff offered trainings in matters concerning VA entitlements, disability compensation and pension benefits.  The project found that representation in benefits cases was crucial because compensation through VA entitlements often provided enough income to cover the cost of housing. 

In 2009, the project expanded and partnered with the Military Law Committee of the Maryland State Bar Association, the Pro Bono Resource Center and the University of Maryland School of Law to become a state-wide direct service project. That year, this group held its first conference addressing veterans’ issues and the role of public interest and volunteer lawyers in providing critical assistance. In 2009, there was a 10% decrease in the number of homeless veterans in Maryland.10

Colorado

The Colorado Lawyer Trust Account Foundation grants 80% of IOLTA revenue to Colorado Legal Services (CLS), which specifically reaches out to veterans. Veterans are able to obtain “live help” via the CLS website.11 Online legal assistance is offered on Wednesdays throughout the month of September specifically for veterans, service members and their families.  Veterans simply click on the “live help for veterans” icon to initiate an online chat with staff attorneys. Staff then take information and assesses the legal issues.  They provide brief counsel and determine whether a case would benefit from additional assistance, which is provided if necessary. Because live help is limited to specific days and times, CLS avails resources to veterans during off hours through their website.12 The site offers links to pages specifically geared toward veterans and military personnel issues which are accessible at all times.

Conclusion

There is no question that veterans are in need of legal assistance.  Many are at risk for homelessness and lack basic human needs. The help of a lawyer has proven to be of exponential value in obtaining VA benefits.   To address the need, IOLTA funded projects are casting a wide net to offer legal assistance to the nation’s veterans.  Initiating different approaches throughout the county, these projects work toward providing veterans with entitlements and legal assistance in order to help meet their needs and offer a higher quality of life.


1 U.S. Census Bureau, The 2008 Statistical Abstract: 2008 Edition, http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2008/2008edition.html.

2National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, September 2011,  http://www.nchv.org/background.cfm#questions

3 United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Monday morning Workload Reports, March  14 2011, http://www.vba.va.gov/REPORTS/mmwr/index.asp

4 National Law Journal, Veterans for Common Sense v. Nicholson 07-3758 N.D.-Calf; National Law Journal, law.com 9/26/07, http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/index.jsp.

5 National Law Journal, VA Inspector General Report, 2005,: National Law Journal/law.com, 9/26/07, http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/index.jsp.

6U.S. Census Bureau, 2009 American Community Survey,  http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/facts_for_features
_special_editions/cb10-ff21.html
.

7 San Francisco Chronicle, Open Forum: Justice Delayed is Justice Denied by Michael Serota, posted June 1, 2010, 
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/opinionshp/detail?entry_id=64633.

8 Grassroots, community-based intervention program where homeless veterans are brought together at a single location for one to three days and are provided access to the community resources needed to begin addressing their individual problems and rebuilding their lives.  National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, September, 2011, http://www.nchv.org/standdown.cfm.

9 Homeless Persons Representation Project, Inc.,
http://www.hprplaw.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&
layout=item&id=35&Itemid=53

10 National Alliance to End Homelessness, Veterans Map and Look Up Table, 2008, http://www.endhomelessness.org/content/article/detail/2801  and  Veteran Homelessness: A Supplemental Report to the 2009 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, U.S. Department of House and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,  http://www.hudhre.info/documents/2009AHARVeteransReport.pdf p. 63.

11 http://coloradolegalservices.org/co/homepage.html

12 http://coloradolegalservices.org/co/homepage.html