January 01, 2017

Emory Law’s Volunteer Clinic for Veterans Recovers $4.75 Million in Benefits—and Counting

By Candace M. Gibson

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs posts weekly reports on its website with data about pending claims. As of October 22, 2016, there were 379,735 of them. This number represents veterans who have so far successfully navigated the necessary procedures and paperwork to get the benefits due to them. One can imagine there are many more veterans who have not yet begun to explore their options—some because they do not know how to start the process, others because they do not know what they are entitled to, and still more who are not sound enough to seek assistance. American Bar Association (ABA) President Linda Klein has prioritized the initiative of providing legal services for veterans, calling on the profession to aid veterans when the justice system lets them down. What obstacles are there to prevent community-minded legal professionals from assisting veterans? And how can these professionals get connected with the individuals who need help?

At Emory Law, the Volunteer Clinic for Veterans (VCV) has established itself as an early, exemplary model of community service that answers the ABA’s call for veterans’ assistance. The VCV focuses on disability claims and pension claims, as well as cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury. More recently, it has begun looking at ways to lift barriers of reentry to veterans who have received less than honorable discharges. Helping veterans reenter society and become active, healthy citizens is no small task, and while the VCV receives calls from across the United States, its primary efforts are focused on the estimated 200,000 veterans who reside in the Atlanta metropolitan area.

Even before the ABA made clear its veterans assistance initiative, the Georgia State Bar, in accord with the Military and Veterans Law Section of the Georgia Bar and the Military Legal Assistance Program Committee, urged law schools in the state to establish legal clinics to aid veterans. Emory Professor of Law Charlie Shanor, VCV codirector and author of books about military and national security law, was teaching counterterrorism law and serving as the faculty sponsor of the Military Law Society when this request quite naturally reached him. “It was a request based on their perception that a lot of veterans couldn’t pay for counsel,” Shanor explains. “Emory was the only school that responded affirmatively.”

Establishing a legal clinic is expensive. According to Shanor, the typical model requires hiring lawyers as clinicians, including a senior lawyer to serve as director and one or two younger lawyers to work on the cases. There is usually a group of 8 to 10 students who work at the clinic with the clinicians’ oversight. “It’s not terribly hard to envision a clinic’s cost being somewhere in the neighborhood of half to three-quarters of a million dollars per year,” he says. The dean of the law school offered Professor Shanor office space and staff support for the clinic; it was up to Shanor to build a volunteer team.

Shanor met with Martin Bunt, president of the National Security Law Society, about the possibility of founding the clinic. Bunt and Shanor attended a meeting of the leaders of the Military and Veterans Law Section of the Georgia Bar. Emory Law Adjunct Professor Lane Dennard, retired partner with King & Spalding, was also in attendance. Shanor had worked with Dennard on another project and wondered whether he would be a willing codirector of a no-cost clinic. “I said to him, ‘If you will agree to be codirector, I will do the same. No compensation. We’ll see if we can link up lawyers and law students to work these cases.’” Shanor’s offer was a perfect extension of the work Dennard was already doing. “For the last four to five years of my retirement, I’d been doing pro bono work for veterans. I’m a vet myself,” Dennard says. Dennard was an Army captain and company commander in Vietnam and was awarded the Silver Star, Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal, and Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster. He found his first clients from a website roster of all the veterans from his company. He contacted the webmaster and said he would represent anyone from his company who needed assistance. Dennard got four cases from that list alone. “I wanted to give back to my profession, community, and country,” he says. He saw the VCV as an opportunity to organize and broaden his efforts—and he said yes to Shanor.

Shanor and Dennard each put up $5,000 in start-up funds for the clinic. Then, they began recruiting students and legal professionals. As far as the students are concerned, Shanor says, this is a chance early in their careers to learn the importance of pro bono work, but there is an even more practical aspect to the volunteerism. “They get trained in veterans benefits law and have actual, live client contact. They learn what it’s like to represent somebody,” he explains. It’s important to note that this is not a credit-granting clinic at Emory Law; it’s all volunteer work. As busy as lawyers are with their practice, “Some just recognize the need to give something back to their profession and the community,” Dennard says. They might not be able to take on multiple cases, but working with a student makes the load more manageable.

The clinic opened its doors in February 2013 with Shanor, Dennard, and two energetic student leaders, Bunt, and a friend, Rachel Erdman. “But we didn’t have any clients!” Dennard laughs. Within the following six months, they had plenty to do and had recruited a large number of student and professional volunteers. After a year and a half of operations, cofounder and codirector Dennard took emeritus status. He continued to accept cases (and has 14 active ones right now), but Shanor needed a codirector. Because Shanor and Dennard had been successful raising funds from local lawyers, alumni, and foundations, he had some money to pay a part-time professional to help. In addition to staffing that one part-time legal professional, Shanor hoped to get a few full-time employees for the clinic. The VCV applied for and received an Equal Justice Works (EJW) AmeriCorps Legal Fellow funding position, and that grant, combined with an equal contribution from Emory Law School, paid for a one-year fellowship. The VCV raised funds to pay for an additional year with the inaugural fellow, Christopher Pitts, half of whose salary was covered by a follow-up AmeriCorps grant. Mallory Ball is currently in that position as senior AmeriCorps EJW fellow, and Keely Youngblood is the junior fellow. Rounding out this group is paid practitioner and codirector Drew Early. “We haven’t been able to do it all for free,” Shanor explains, “but it’s been little burden on Emory or Emory Law School. We were a no-cost clinic, and now we are a low-cost clinic.”

Shanor says Drew Early “is about as knowledgeable a lawyer on veterans’ benefits law as anyone in the state.” While Shanor commits his time to fundraising and internal administration, as well as taking the occasional appellate case and encouraging student involvement and volunteerism, Early is involved in day-to-day case management and weekly meetings with student leadership. Because Early also teaches a fall semester Veterans Benefits Law class at Emory, his classroom is a natural conduit of eager volunteers to the VCV. “A student who’s taken that class and works in the clinic has a huge leg up in being able to do useful things for our clients,” Shanor says. Early allows Atlanta attorneys to audit the class, and he asks the incoming fellow at the VCV to audit it as well so that it can be used as a training vehicle for the student and professional volunteers.

An elder law attorney by trade, Early sees his overall role at the VCV as gatekeeper. The clinic cannot handle every request, so Early makes decisions about what cases they accept. “I’m sensitive to the limited resources we have and the needs of the clients. We might have good people calling in, but I focus like a laser beam on how we can maximize the effectiveness of what we do for those people,” Early explains. His daily role is guiding the two fellows, Ball and Youngblood, and providing technical background for the volunteer students and legal professionals. “We might have a well-meaning bankruptcy attorney who needs advice on veterans’ law,” Early says. Early can give the attorney that guidance, as well as invite him or her to his Veterans Benefits Law class. Early meets with the VCV fellows on Mondays to go over cases, and to supplement the ever-growing roster of cases, there is a concerted effort to grow the volunteer base at the clinic. Ball jokes about “Drew’s Bootcamp,” which is the program used to on-board student volunteers. Students get a comprehensive overview of veterans’ and military law before they are sent to the clinic to start helping with cases. There are 60 names on the current volunteer list and about 20 working actively with the clinic right now. As for volunteer legal professionals, the VCV has around 70. That number varies depending on the caseload and the professionals’ availability.

As fellows staffed full-time at the clinic, Ball and Youngblood have the most direct line to veterans—literally. While not every call placed to the VCV will result in a case, they all represent the kind of earnest understanding and effort required by working with veterans. “We’ve got phones ringing off the hook; it’s great,” Ball enthuses. When a potential case arises, the fellows do intake with the veterans, getting basic facts and organizing the students who will be working with them on their case. In addition to receiving incoming veterans’ calls, the VCV also takes counsel to the veterans in a unique outreach program. Back in February 2016, the VCV launched Military Mondays, a partnership with the Starbucks located at 650 Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta. Every other Monday, legal fellows and students sit at reserved tables, and Starbucks provides free coffee and snacks while they offer sessions with veterans. The volunteers answer questions, and Ball explains, “If we can’t help them long term, we try to point them in the right direction and give them a roadmap of what evidence is needed in order for their case to have the best chance at success.” In every Starbucks in the Atlanta metro area, there is a postcard on their community board promoting the Ponce Avenue Military Mondays.

Ball has seen her fair share of veterans’ claims cases, and if you ask her why veterans are being denied benefits, she’ll attribute it to missing evidence. “Most of the time, they’re missing a piece of paper, like the nexus letter, a doctor’s opinion that links their condition to what happened to them during their time in service,” she says. What’s more, “We see a lot of mistakes on claims, both factual and legal,” Ball continues. Sometimes mistakes are on the client end; sometimes they’re on the VA end. This is why it’s helpful to have a legal professional intervene and represent the vet. “The people involved in these cases are encumbered by the nature of the disability, and they can’t navigate the process,” Early adds. “Or they’re elderly and overwhelmed by the bureaucracy of the government.” Being asked to submit documents by fax or email can thwart some veterans completely if they do not understand or have access to those technologies. Early estimates that 35 to 40 percent of the VCV’s calls are from the elderly. “I want that number to get higher. I think that as we do more, it’ll grow. We’re out there to help them all,” he says.

Helping as many veterans as possible might be the ultimate goal, but in the meantime, as the VCV develops its resources and grows its body of volunteers, it’s taking a close look at the issues in its backyard. “The biggest problem in Atlanta is the backlog in veterans getting their claims considered,” Dennard says. In addition to helping restore veterans’ benefits that were cut back, the VCV has helped veterans obtain benefits they were entitled to by statute, but that they could not get on their own. Shanor says in some cases, this amounted to an increase of $1,500 to $3,000 per month. “That’s the difference between eating peanut butter and regular meals,” he points out. When veterans lose benefits, or do not have access to them to begin with, they can lose their homes or find themselves reliant on public assistance. For veterans with less than honorable discharges, though, public assistance might not be an option.

“Opportunities open up when we get an upgrade for veterans with these less than honorable discharges,” Shanor says. If the vet has been given the discharge wrongly, it’s a barrier to employment and public housing. The VCV has a grant from the American College of Trial Lawyers to help with discharge upgrades. Early paints a picture of the ideal kind of case that the VCV can help with: There’s a homeless veteran who had PTSD, which caused behavioral issues. This led to a bad discharge. The VCV can work with the veteran to get the discharge upgraded so that he or she can get benefits. “If we can get a homeless person off the street, that’s the perfect scenario. We’re helping someone who’s really in need,” Early says. Of course, this does not describe every call that comes through to the VCV. The clinic gets its share of calls from people who think they are entitled to claims they’re not eligible for, and the clinic’s staff has even heard some fraudulent claims. Early describes a recent call from a man who said he fell off a plane while in the Air Force in 1980. “His back hurts him now, 36 years later. He has no proof of the accident, no safety report, no witnesses. He didn’t go on sick call. We’re not wasting time on something like that,” Early says. “It took all of two seconds to decide we’re not doing this.”

Since the clinic opened in 2013, they have closed or are currently involved with about 160 cases. Ball explains that cases are constantly open because VA wait times are long. “When everything has been submitted, you’re just waiting on the VA to make a decision or ask for any other documents to keep the appeal going,” she says. An initial application might take six months to a year for review. If that application is denied and goes to a decision review officer at the local level, it could mean another year and a half to two years. After that, taking the case to the Board of Veterans Appeals could take four years. Discharge upgrades take anywhere from one to two years, Ball says, depending on the branch of service.

How do you measure results and efficacy when cases are constantly open? The VCV measures quarterly the number of calls they receive and how many of those callers get legal advice. Last quarter, Ball estimates they took 120 calls; five of those became cases. Shanor points out, “We keep a running tab of the benefits we’ve obtained for our clients, and our basic calculation is that we’ve received $4.75 million in lifetime benefits for clients since February 2013.” He specifies that these cases involved substantive work helping the client through the VA process, but the clinic also does its share of informal counseling, simple wills, and powers of attorney. None of that work gets counted among the total cases, but it takes dedicated time and effort, too.

As the VCV continues to expand, the clinic is looking to actively increase its staff. Shanor says, “We have a grant proposal out now. If we’re successful, it will enable us to do a project we think is really worthwhile and serve as a model for other legal clinics around the country.” This is dependent, of course, on getting more money to hire another person. The VCV wants to maintain its status as a low-cost clinic, but it must balance that aim with resource demands. No one begrudges the hard work and the constantly ringing phones—those are signs that the VCV’s mission is reaching veterans. “If America only knew the number [of pending claims] and the totality of the backlog,” Early says. “There are more people out there who can’t navigate the system and give up.” Emory’s VCV is focused on preventing its local veterans from giving up on their benefits, and as the clinic demonstrates the big impact possible from low operational costs, perhaps other schools will adopt this clinical model.