February 15, 2017

Midyear 2017: Experts to show lawyers how to aid veterans in their local communities

The way ABA President Linda Klein sees it, the legal profession owes more than gratitude to our nation’s veterans. Because 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, Klein took action. Her presidential initiative, the 20-member Veterans Legal Services Commission, is leading a holistic, sustainable effort to ensure that veterans have access to justice and receive the legal support they, their families and their caregivers deserve. 

As part of this effort, members of the commission’s Access to Legal Services Workgroup will present a special Midyear Meeting program for bar leaders, public interest, private and government attorneys and law schools on the legal needs of veterans and how to establish pro bono initiatives to address these needs in their own communities. “Called to Serve: Addressing the Legal Needs of Veterans” will be held at the Midyear Meeting in Miami on Sat., Feb. 4, from 9-11 a.m. in JW Marriott Marquis, Plaza 5, 5th Floor.

Three commission members will discuss the value of medical-legal partnerships and how to create them; establishing legal clinics at or near VA Medical Centers to aid this population in a myriad of legal issues; innovative ideas to address the legal needs of rural veterans; and how to work with law schools to aid or establish law school clinics that assist veterans. The panel will also discuss the need to engage in culturally competent practices when representing veterans, including referrals to wraparound services to address the needs of veterans and their families holistically.

Moderator Antonia Kivelle Fasanelli is executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore, a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness in Maryland, and chair of the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty. At the program, she will provide an introduction on the legal needs of veterans and discuss medical-legal partnerships.

Panelist Patricia Erikson Roberts, director of clinical programs and director of the Lewis B. Puller Jr., Veterans Benefits Clinic at the William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va., who took part in an ABA webinar in December on establishing and enhancing legal clinics to serve veterans, says this program will focus more on getting started and establishing community networks to be able to make referrals when helping veterans.

“The goal is to inspire the audience to action in starting programs in their localities,” she says, adding that the panel will highlight the availability of commission members who can offer technical advice as programs are initiated. Unlike December’s webinar, this program will also offer CLE.  

Panelist Sara Sommarstrom is Vetlaw director with the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans in St. Paul, Minn. In 2016, MACV held 38 legal clinic events and served 1,613 veterans in more than 12 locations around the state. Many of those helped were rural veterans.

Sommarstrom says the key to serving rural veterans is to leverage relationships with local legal aid providers and pro bono attorneys to maximize impact, use technology and partner with veterans service providers to build trust with the community.

In fact, just “one really passionate attorney,” she says, can start a process that can be built upon. “If you have folks who may be geographically separated from the veteran population, there are some pretty economical and easy ways to connect them to the need without a lot of formal framework or established program guidelines.”

Veterans are “an approachable population to serve that doesn’t need a staffed bar association program or necessarily even a specific funding source, although that’s nice,” Sommarstrom says.

Rural veterans tend to be older, so the work for them leans toward estate planning and writing health care directives. It is similar to poverty law work and lawyers do not need to be a veterans’ law specialist to serve veterans, she says.

Sommarstrom will also discuss legal clinics at VA facilities during the program.