The North Carolina Central University (NCCU) School of Law is part of a historically black college and was founded in 1940. Always committed to providing opportunity, the Law School has continued to grow over the decades. In 1944 it admitted its first women. In 1965 Caucasian students were enrolled. Nineteen eighty-one marked the first year for the Law School’s evening program––the only evening law school program between Atlanta and Washington, D.C. As a result of the Law School’s growth, the student body now includes over 550 students.
The Clinical Program at NCCU is formidable. It boasts ten different programs whose mission is to produce excellent attorneys who are sensitive to addressing the needs of people and communities that are traditionally underserved and underrepresented by the legal profession.
In 2006, I proposed that the NCCU School of Law establish a Veterans Law Clinic to assist veterans and their dependents in North Carolina and elsewhere. Given present world events, the continuous flow of related casualties, and the shortage of qualified legal assistance in this field, there is a significant need for a program that addresses these issues. Such a clinic would fit squarely within the mission of the Law School and its Clinical Program.
In January 2007, after considerable deliberation and the beginning of a continual search for funding, the NCCU School of Law opened the first major, active veterans law clinic in the country. Response nationwide has been outstanding. Cases have poured in from veterans of World War II, the Korean conflict, the Vietnam War, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In addition, claims resulting from the groundwater contamination that has arguably affected nearly one million veterans and their families at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, will be the subject of many cases handled by the clinic.
The legal clinic enables law students to become skilled in the veterans claims adjudication process. Veterans will benefit greatly from the assistance of law students who help in sorting incoming claims and documents necessary for claims development, referring the claims to the proper offices or jurisdictions within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), helping claimants file all applicable forms, and ensuring that the initial development of a claim is completed within the time limits imposed by the VA.
Not only could the law students help veterans develop their initial claims for compensation and pension, but they could assist in ordering further medical examinations when needed and could ensure that the VA fulfills its broadened duty to assist veterans in the development of their claims. Before filing an appeal with the Board of Veterans Affairs, the students could assist with the filing of a notice of disagreement with an adverse VA rating decision, whereupon a statement of the case is issued by the VA explaining the rationale for the VA rating decision. Thereupon, an appeal to the Board of Veterans Affairs would be filed with the assistance of the law students under the guidance of the clinic’s director. Under current court rules at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC), law students can participate in any particular case under the direct supervision of a veterans law clinic supervising attorney or director.
NCCU’s Veterans Law Clinic continues to be the largest active clinic of its type in the country. Currently more than thirty students are involved in the class. The response to this clinic has been outstanding statewide, and the purpose and benefits of a veterans law clinic located in a state with such a large veteran and military personnel population, and in close proximity to a major VA medical center, is obvious.
Students must complete one hundred hours of clinical work and twenty hours of live classroom training and lectures, with three credit hours awarded for the course. Many of the tools necessary for such duties are taught during the twenty-hour training, and written materials are provided. The students gain hands-on experience through case work during the one hundred clinical hours. Other students volunteer on a pro bono basis. Most pro bono students will complete forty-five hours in a semester. Graduating students who complete seventy-five pro bono hours in their law school careers are eligible to receive a certificate of recognition from the North Carolina Bar Association. The class studies the evolving spectrum of veterans law, especially as it relates to the present state of world events, the continuous flow of related casualties, and the significant need for such legal services. Law students are given the valuable opportunity to provide supervised claims adjudication assistance to veterans and their dependents. The class lectures primarily focus on the processing of veterans claims from the initial claims adjudication level all the way up to judicial review with the CAVC. Classes are completely interactive, with all students discussing the cases they are working on.
Third-year students may fully participate in many aspects of practice before the CAVC. Through hands-on experience and under extensive supervision, all participating law students will (1) screen files, (2) sort incoming claims and documents necessary for claims development, (3) interview veterans as to the validity of their claims, (4) assist veterans with the complexities and technical aspects of filing their claims, (5) perform legal research, (6) prepare supporting legal briefs, (7) refer the claims to the correct office of jurisdiction within the VA, (8) help a claimant file all applicable forms, (9) ensure that the initial development is completed within the time limits imposed by the VA, and (10) perform whatever other tasks are required to successfully work the veterans claims through the related adjudication process.
Veterans have been crying aloud for relief in the area of obtaining legal assistance in the processing of claims. Students are attracted to the clinic because they gain hands-on experience handling claims and because many of them are veterans or committed to serve in active duty military service upon graduation from law school.
Our hope is that the experience that law students gain from working with this clinic will not only assist veterans who otherwise would have meritorious claims denied but also will prepare these students for rendering service to veterans once they become practicing attorneys—and fill the void that has existed since 1862. Our society must be ready to assist our existing and returning veterans legally, medically, and socially, and this clinic is committed to doing its part.