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March 2017

If you start a clinic to help veterans, they will come, panelists say

Among the goals of ABA President Linda Klein’s Veterans Legal Services Initiative are to have one civil legal aid clinic at every VA Medical Center and one law school clinic serving veterans in every state.

At “Called to Serve: Addressing the Legal Needs of Veterans,” three members of the president’s commission discussed how to establish and enhance various types of legal clinics for veterans on at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Miami.

ABA President Linda Klein and Veterans Legal Services Commission vice chair Nan DeRenzi introduced the panelists, each of whom described various ways that lawyers can aid veterans

Medical-legal partnerships

Antonia K. Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Maryland, talked about medical-legal partnerships. This variation on a clinic puts lawyers in medical facilities to address the legal issues facing patients while doctors address their health needs.

According to panelists, MLPs are on the rise: they are currently in 152 hospitals, 140 health centers, 10 VAMCs, 33 medical schools and 51 law schools across the country.

There are several good reasons to support MLPs, with such partnerships reporting many positive outcomes, including:

  • people with chronic illnesses are admitted to the hospital less frequently
  • people more commonly take their medications as prescribed
  • less money is spent on health care services for the people who would otherwise frequently go to the hospital.

For those interested in learning more, panelists offered a free MLP toolkit that can be downloaded at

Legal clinics

The term ‘legal clinic’ is “a very vague term,” said panelist Sara Sommarstrom, VetLaw director at the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans. She spoke about establishing “brief services” legal clinics for veterans, used to describe a wide range of legal activities, from a single lawyer answering questions to a coordinated effort of dozens of volunteers. It can include a wide range of services, from legal information to full representation. The right scope depends on resource availability and client need.

“We are so far from full representation that legal clinics are still valuable,” she said.

VetLaw, she said, works with homeless vets, and they leverage other legal clinics and social services to maximize their impact.

Among the aspects to consider when establishing a legal clinic include:

  • Scope: decide on the level of services to provide and the areas of law you need
  • Scheduling: decide on the frequency of the clinics and how you will screen clients
  • Staffing: decide how you will recruit volunteers, staff resources and form partnerships

VetLaw utilizes paralegals and legal secretaries as volunteers who can do client intake interviews and other very helpful tasks. They also bring in case managers, county veterans officers and child support case workers as needed to aid their representation.

Legal clinics: Texas and Minnesota models

Sommarstrom used the examples of Texas and Minnesota to illustrate different ways veterans’ legal needs can be served.

Texas has many military bases and many veterans. The Texas state bar works with local bar associations, legal aid programs and veteran service providers. The Texas Access to Justice Foundation has created a Clinic in a Box and Veterans Clinic Marketing Toolkit to help those seeking to establish clinics for veterans.

Minnesota, by contrast, has no military bases, so its veterans are much less connected to the structured system of the military. The Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans is a nonprofit funded in part by a VA Supportive Services for Veterans Families grant. The organization coordinates, promotes and manages legal clinics at VA facilities and community locations around the state.

Legal clinics: Getting one off the ground

Sommarstrom said that among the considerations to take into account when establishing a veterans legal clinic are:

  • Location: “go where the vets are,” such as at VA facilities and/or community centers
  • Logistics: such as space considerations, how to gather data and how to manage expectations
  • Training: in military and veteran culture as well as in substantive law

And all of these require cultural competence to be effective, she said.

When getting started, Sommarstrom said, start with the low-hanging fruit. Partner with existing veteran-specific events, such as Stand Downs, and Veterans Day events. In addition, partner with established veterans resources in your area.

Starting small is okay, Sommarstrom said, even if it’s just one attorney behind a table at an outreach event. She advised building trust with the service providers who have already built trust with your vet clients, and to be patient. It may take time, but consistency and showing up count, she said.

Fasanelli spoke about her experience establishing the Maryland Veterans Legal Assistance Project (VLAP), a full representation clinic. Her group took it in steps:

  • Establish the need: a survey by University of Maryland Law students focused on veterans benefits revealed a need for legal assistance.
  • Find collaborators: they connected with two law schools, the state bar pro bono program and the state bar’s Committee on Military Law and Veteran’s Affairs.
  • Consider model programs: they looked at model programs in Philadelphia and Sommarstrom’s program in Minnesota.
  • Get funding: they got training funding from a law firm, then grants from Equal Justice Works and eventually foundations. Fasanelli recommends talking to the state bar for seed money and volunteers, then going out to the philanthropic community.
  • Form a relationship with the VA: her group worked with the VA general counsel to refine their representation.

VLAP trains its volunteers and provides malpractice insurance, Fasanelli said, and provides representation for service-connected disability and pension claims, discharge upgrades, expungements and subsidized housing matters, among others. It also screens for child support arrears.

VLAP holds a clinic in Baltimore twice a month and two rural clinics once a month.

In 2015, VLAP calculated that $1 of their time yielded nearly $2 of donated volunteer time and $3.89 in benefits per veteran.

Help for vets in rural areas

Sommarstrom spoke about how to reach rural veterans make up 34 percent of enrollees in the VA’s health system, and they skew older than urban and suburban veterans. They are increasingly without lawyers, she said.

At her rural Minnesota clinic, she uses technology to bridge the geographic divide between clients and legal services, but advises being smart about it:

  • Use video conferencing with attorneys only when needed
  • Bring a scanner/copier/printer and a wireless “hot spot”
  • Use online research tools and legal forms.

Other ways to bridge the geographic divide:

  • Bring services to where the clients are
  • Create a small team and add to it as needed
  • Be aware of any existing resources
  • Make sure you’re meeting an unmet need.

Clinics at law schools

Panelist Patricia E. Roberts, clinical professor of law and director of the Lewis B. Puller Jr., Veterans Benefits Clinic at the William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va., spoke about setting up a law school clinic.

Veterans have legal needs, and law students need practical skills, so combining them can be very fruitful.

Among the benefits of volunteering at a veterans legal clinic are:

  • Increase law students’ practice-readiness
  • Teach students to work across disciplines (medical-legal partnerships, social work, public policy)
  • Fulfill the ABA’s six-credit experiential learning requirement
  • Instill service to our nation’s veterans
  • Instill professional responsibility.

In 2008 there were about a half dozen law school clinics focused on veteran’s legal needs; by the summer of 2016, there were more than 50.

At the Puller Clinic, law students usually handle three veterans’ cases at a time. The clinic offers both legal and psychological services to veterans, through a medical-legal partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University.

The clinic has obtained nearly $1 million in back benefits for veteran clients, and more than $20 million in future lifetime benefits.

Roberts said interested lawyers can serve veterans by:

  • Locating a law school in their area to see if they have a clinic; if not, try and start one
  • Donate to support a law school clinic serving veterans and service members
  • Develop a bar association project that incorporates law student volunteers, for instance Military Mondays at Starbucks or Wills for Heroes.

The panelists agreed: “if you build it, they will come.”

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