Veterans Legal Services

Initiative: Needs, Vision, Mission and Goals

American Bar Association President-Elect Linda Klein
Veterans Legal Services Initiative
May 5, 2016

The legal profession owes more than gratitude to our nation’s Veterans. Legal barriers often make it difficult, if not impossible, for those who have served in the military to receive the rightful benefits and services that federal and state governments provide. Many Veterans, their families, and caregivers also have unique needs involving legal issues common to the civilian sector, in areas including issues of family law, consumer law, landlord-tenant law, labor and employment law, criminal law, guardianships and conservatorships, administrative challenges resulting from service or discharge, and other matters. Despite the many lawyers and organizations that help Veterans with their legal needs, access to legal assistance is not well-coordinated among service providers or across state lines. Although the ABA has several entities that help active-duty military and Veterans, they do not address the universe of concerns regarding Veterans’ access to legal services. Given the substantial volume of unmet legal needs among Veterans and those who support them, and the ABA’s mission of public service, access to justice, and support for the military, the ABA is launching a presidential Veterans Legal Services Initiative.

Vision

The Veterans Legal Services Initiative will position the ABA to lead and coordinate a holistic, multipronged, sustainable effort to ensure that Veterans have access to justice and receive the legal support they, their families, and their caregivers deserve. The initiative will also develop and advocate for systemic and policy changes to enhance and sustain Veteran-related access to justice.

Mission

The Veterans Legal Services Initiative will catalogue the wide range and scope of Veterans’ legal needs, and through evidence-based assessments, it will promote best practices and policies for addressing them. This analysis will include both an assessment of cost for the policies as well as of the need going unmet.. The initiative will connect stakeholders inside and outside the ABA to ensure that resources are available and accessible to support Veterans in need.

Goals

The ABA Veterans Legal Services Initiative will address the legal needs of Veterans through three goals: (1) Creating centralized resources, (2) Developing policy, and (3) Supporting the delivery of legal services.  Achieving these goals will draw on the unique strengths of the ABA as an unparalleled convener of substantive law expertise, the national voice of the legal profession, and a recognized leader in support of the legal needs of military families and Veterans.

Creating Centralized Resources:

The Veterans Legal Services Initiative will use the vast substantive law expertise of ABA membership and the ABA’s nationwide relationships to build an online comprehensive, centralized, accessible resource that will educate and inform Veterans, caregivers, and family members about legal issues potentially affecting them and direct them to relevant local resources and legal providers.

Strategies and actions:

  • Establish a permanent ABA entity whose exclusive mission is Veterans’ legal services.
  • Encourage state/local bars and law schools to create new programs and highlight existing programs.
  • Mobilize more volunteers.
  • Provide a leadership presence for the ABA’s role in establishing the National Military and Veterans Legal Services Network, currently under development.
  • Coordinate with appropriate ABA entities to adapt for Veterans and their families/caregivers the ABA’s legal check-up tool currently being developed in coordination with the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services.
  • Position the ABA as an ideal convener of stakeholders in the Veterans legal services community.

Proposed deliverables:              

  • Regularized and sustained ABA collaboration on Veterans’ legal services with state/local bars, law schools, government and legal aid agencies, ABA entities, and other organizations.
  • Enhanced ABA coordination and leadership visibility on the National Military and Veterans Legal Services Network.
  • Legal-check up for Veterans and their families and caregivers.
  • Expand and enhance the features of the ABA Home Front web site.

Developing Policy:

The initiative will survey existing ABA policies and solicit stakeholders to determine where new or amended policies and activities could better address Veterans’ legal needs.

Strategies and actions:   

  • Coordinate efforts with other advocacy organizations that advance Veterans legal policies.
  • Collect existing ABA policies and develop advocacy priorities and prioritize development of potential new ABA policies.  Possible areas for new policy development may include:

Public education and caregiver education about legal needs and issues.

Recognition of and support to address the unique needs of female Veterans and homeless Veterans.

Access to credit and other economic issues for Veterans.

Assure service to veterans is permanently within ABA structure;

Reform of laws that make it difficult for Veterans to get help, such as barriers to tort claims and restrictions on legal fees.

Establish legal clinics in or near VHA facilities.

Promote the proliferation of  Veterans Treatment Courts, specialized dockets, and related initiatives, including through strategic collaboration

Create a certification of  law specialty on Veterans’ legal issues.

Promote other options to have paid lawyer staff help Veterans, including through student loan repayment programs that incentivize working with veterans, as well as the role of legal aid, both LSC funded and non-LSC funded.

Proposed deliverables:

  • Expanded body of ABA policy on Veterans’ legal issues and access to justice.
  • ABA Day focus on Veterans’ legal issues.
  • Identify appropriate candidate organizations that might serve as a national certifying agency for a specialty in Veterans’ legal issues and services
  • ABA advocacy for VA directive governing legal clinics in VHA facilities.
  • ABA advocacy for expansion of Veterans Treatment Court model to other specialty areas, e.g., debt collection and domestic relations
  • Coordinated ABA efforts that explicitly address the full range of legal needs of Veterans.

Supporting delivery of legal services:

Centralized resources and strong policies are not enough when the critical needs of Veterans ultimately can only be addressed by direct legal assistance. Consequently, the availability of low and no-cost legal services is vital to the Initiative’s success. The ABA can identify where gaps in such resources exist, support local efforts to develop resources in those areas, and provide legal services where either local efforts need to be supplemented, or where none exist.

Strategies and actions:

  • Provide leadership visibility and support and fund pro bono initiatives  such as the Veterans Claims Assistance Network (VCAN)
  • Promote and enable increased medical-legal partnerships; do so in concert with stakeholders, e.g., partnership with Morehouse School of Medicine graduate students in public health. 
  • Provide assistance to incubator programs, particularly in rural areas, to bring services to Veterans while providing valuable training for new and underemployed lawyers.
  • Encourage incubators to serve Veterans’ legal needs, including cultural competence such as incubators that retain Veterans as lawyers to build programs to meet legal needs of Veteran clients.
  • Promote unbundled (i.e., limited scope) legal services in the Veterans context by encouraging replication of programs such as Starbucks Military Mondays.
  • Identify and, if needed, collect relevant data.
  • Encourage law schools to enhance Veterans’ access to legal services
  • Revitalize successful pro bono initiatives such as YLD’s Project Salute and replicate among affiliates.
  • Work with the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service to focus Pro Bono Week in October 2016 on Veterans legal issues and encourage bar associations to promote volunteer legal services for Veterans in May around Memorial Day.

Proposed deliverables:

  • VCAN moves past pilot program to sustainable complement to ABA Military Pro Bono Project
  • Video for bar associations, law schools, and other audiences to promote Veterans’ legal needs and strategies for addressing them (similar to “Be the Change” video from Legal Access Job Corps).
  • Increased network of volunteer providers.
  • Increased use of medical-legal partnerships at VHA facilities.
  • Mini-grant program to provide seed money for existing incubator programs that will build a legal practice focused on service to Veterans.
  • Advanced awareness of the Veterans legal clinic model among law schools, bar associations, and the ABA Law Student Division and Young Lawyers Division.
  • Data Committee to create metrics that can lead to resources.
  • Information for pilot program to bundle small, like-cases such that one lawyer can defend all the cases at once (e.g., debt or license revocation cases).
  • Model law school courses and other activities to promote legal services for Veterans.
  • Revitalize successful pro bono initiatives such as YLD Project Salute program.
  • 2016 Pro Bono Week focus on Veterans’ issues and additional pro bono programming in May 2017 around Memorial Day. 
  • Existing ABA Resources

Existing ABA resources to support Goal I:  Creating centralized resources. 

The ABA Home Front website plays a critical role as a cornerstone, but alone in its present form cannot meet the total need.  Even so, ABA Home Front has been well publicized and continues to receive 6,000-7,000 unique visitors every month. There are additional opportunities to synchronize efforts with other resources such as Stateside Legal. The ABA also has a Coordinating Committee on Veteran’s Benefits & Services, which could play a key role in the connecting all the pieces of the Veterans Legal Services Initiative if expanded with  adequate resources or incorporated into the initiative.

Existing ABA resources to support Goal II:  Developing policy. 

Although the ABA has a body of policy related to military personnel, much of that does not speak directly to the legal needs of Veterans.

Existing ABA resources to support Goal III: Supporting delivery of legal services. 

Among others, the ABA Veterans’ Claims Assistance Network (VCAN) pilot project built significant capacity within the ABA to directly support the delivery of pro bono legal services to assist Veterans in the preparation of VA claims and in resolving legal obstacles that prevent them from receiving disability benefits. Not only does a full intake-and-referral infrastructure now exist within the ABA to handle such matters, the ABA also has a roster of hundreds of attorneys, law firms, and law school clinics across the country that are ready and able to serve the legal needs of Veterans at no cost. The ABA can continue to take a leadership role in the area of initial claim development.