Georgia Bar Journal — February 2014
The Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans: Serving Those Who Have Served
The Needs of Our Veterans
In his second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln recognized that our nation should “care for him [and her] who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan.” The needs of our veterans are significant today. There are more than 750,000 veterans in Georgia and more than 200,000 of this total live in the Atlanta Metropolitan Area.1 Many of these individuals have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with service connected injuries and mental illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Older veterans, including those who served in Vietnam and prior wars, also have disabilities associated with their prior military service. Many of these men and women who have served their country have a variety of legal issues, both related to their disability claims and other civil matters.
The State Bar of Georgia has recognized this need by creating a dialog with law schools in the state encouraging them to create legal clinics for veterans. Both the Military/Veterans Section and the Military Legal Assistance Program (MLAP) actively support the creation of law school clinical programs to address these needs. Norman Zoller, coordinator of the MLAP has observed, “When the State Bar of Georgia and two of its veterans’ committees and law sections first began considering the issue of whether, how and who might be willing to engage and support students at a law school in Georgia, Emory Law School was approached and the first to step forward. As one will read in the ensuing text of this article, the results have been exemplary and extraordinary. Much credit and appreciation goes to the faculty and administrative leadership at the school, the codirectors of the program and especially to the students who continue to participate, consulting with many deserving veterans on real-life VA benefit matters.”
At Emory Law School, the National Security Law Society president, Martin Bunt, and its faculty sponsor, Prof. Charles Shanor, decided to explore the possibility of creating such a clinic. Following discussions with the State Bar representatives mentioned above, Emory offered an adjunct professor appointment to Lane Dennard, a retired King & Spalding lawyer who has handled a number of claims for veterans, and he accepted the challenge of leading this enterprise in conjunction with Shanor.
The National Security Law Society at Emory invited representatives from the well-established Veterans Benefit Clinic at John Marshall Law School in Chicago to conduct a two-day program focusing on its operations. John Marshall, as a part of this visit, provided a three-hour training session concerning the handling of veterans benefit claims. Twenty-seven students participated in this training. Following further internal discussion focused on the resources available at Emory Law School and its desire to provide the best opportunities for pro bono opportunities for students to work on veterans’ legal matters, procedures were developed and the Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans started operations. Shanor explained, “The clinic is a wonderful opportunity for students to experience the best aspects of law yering. Serving clients, analyzing problems and helping to articulate and solve their problems—that’s what legal education is about.”
An increasing number of our veterans need legal assistance with claims for service-connected disabilities filed with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Many of these veterans cannot afford to hire a lawyer. During the past year the following veterans in need have turned to the clinic for help:
• 77-year-old Air Force veteran was exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war, but his VA claims have been denied. He currently has Ischemic heart disease, prostate cancer and peripheral neuropathy, all of which are conditions on the Agent Orange list.4 This veteran needed help filing a request to reopen his denied claims.
• The VA denied a Marine combat veteran’s claim for PTSD and TBI. He needed to appeal this decision to the Board of Veterans Appeals.
• The widow of an Army veteran whose service related condition contributed significantly to her husband’s death has been denied a pension. She has three minor children to support and needs to appeal the VA denial of her claim.
• A Marine combat veteran with substantially debilitating PTSD needs to increase the low disability rating assigned by the VA. He needed assistance in filing of an appeal with the VA (which included a private psychological evaluation).
• A female Navy veteran who was subjected to sexual harassment in the service and, after she complained of this, was discharged because she had a “personality disorder.” It is now clear that she had PTSD resulting from her sexual harassment. This veteran needs assistance to correct her military records.
Teams including Emory law students and their attorney mentors are in the process of helping these veterans and many more.
The Work of the Clinic
The mission of the clinic is to help those who have served our country by assisting them with the legal issues they face, especially those veterans with service-connected disability claims. The clinic will normally accept the following types of cases:
• Disability Claims before the Department of Veterans Claims: The focus of this work is on appeals to the Board of Veterans Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The clinic will consider acceptance of an existing VA claim where there is a demonstrated need for legal research or additional fact-finding. Initial claims may also be referred to the Georgia Department of Veterans Service.
• Pension Claims before the VA: This type of work includes the need-based pension and the pension that may be available to the veteran’s surviving spouse or children based on the service connected death of a veteran.
• Claim for Increased Rating Before the Regional Office of the VA: The VA will consider a claim for an increased rating if the veteran shows that his or her mental or physical condition has worsened.
• Request to Reopen a Claim Previously Denied by the VA: Legal assistance and intense investigation are frequently needed in these cases because the VA requires that requests to reopen denied claims be supported by “new and material evidence.”
• Application for Discharge Upgrade and Record Correction: All of the branches of the service have Boards that consider applications for correction of military records and discharge upgrades.
• Criminal Records: As with other ex-offenders, veterans with criminal records frequently experience problems with employment, housing and the right to benefits. Clinic lawyers working with students may assist veterans whose records are incomplete or erroneous. They may also help veterans restrict access to arrest records under the Georgia Statute.6 In some of these cases the clinic partners with the Georgia Justice Project to help the veterans.
• Wills, Powers of Attorney and Medical Directives: Pro bono lawyers may assist veterans and their family members in the preparation of simple wills, powers of attorneys and medical directives. Attorneys at Alston & Bird have handled clients under their existing program and Kim Kimbrough, an experienced trust and estates attorney in Athens, has also assisted. Student volunteers are supervised by these lawyers.
The clinic does not accept criminal cases, probate matters, family law matters, personal injury, immigration matters, bankruptcy matters or insurance law matters.
In addition to the casework, the clinic has also been deeply involved in two important public policy initiatives: homeless veterans and veterans’ treatment courts. Five student volunteers participated in the Homeless Veterans Stand Down sponsored by the VA Hospital in October. The students interviewed 20 homeless veterans with legal issues and the clinic continues to work through this intake. Drew Early, chair of the Military/Veterans Law Section of the State Bar, participated in the Stand Down and observed the positive interactions of three of the Emory students with the veterans at that event. He found that “the Emory presence was great for the students as it showed them the real-world needs of these veterans that so many of us simply take for granted. It was great for the veterans as they got a compassionate and understanding review of their issues, with an eye toward immediacy of resolution.” The clinic has also been a strong proponent of enabling legislation for Veterans Courts in Georgia. Students Will Evans and Patrick Hartobey prepared research papers that were submitted to the governor’s Criminal Justice Reform Council and House Legislative Counsel. Their papers have also been accepted for presentation at the Accountability Courts Conference in September 2014 sponsored by the State Administrative Office of the Courts.
How the Work is Accomplished
Experience at the clinic has demonstrated that there are three critical elements to the successful operation: the referral of quality cases, an adequate number of student volunteers and an adequate number of pro bono lawyers to serve as mentors for the students. Initially, most cases were referred by the Military Legal Assistance Program of the State Bar and the Legal Clinic at the VA Hospital in Decatur. During Fall Semester, the clinic initiated an intake process of its own. Student volunteers responded to contacts by veterans by completing a questionnaire and preparing a summary memorandum. The cases were then presented to potential student volunteers and the pro bono lawyers/mentors.
The students in the clinic are all volunteers. At this point, no class credit has been provided. However, students who work in the clinic receive credit for both Emory Law pro bono hours as well as hours awarded by the Emory Public Interest Committee (EPIC). EPIC gives between 25 and 30 scholarships every summer, each worth $5,000 for students who do public interest work for their summer internships. Students must complete at least 30 EPIC hours to be eligible for the summer scholarships. The initial group of clinic students all attended the John Marshall VA Disability Training and had priority in the assignment of cases and projects. In Fall Semester, 21 new student volunteers watched the VA training online. The total number of trained students is 43.
One of the clinic’s student leaders, Martin Bunt, was recently named the national winner of the Public Service Jobs Directory Pro Bono Publico Award for his work with the startup and operation of the clinic. Rachel Erdman, another student leader, is equally deserving for her work coordinating student volunteers. After Fall semester, she was presented The Epic Inspiration Award for outstanding commitment to public service. An article co-authored by Bunt and Erdman appeared in the Fall issue of the Emory Lawyer.
Fifty-eight attorneys have been recruited to serve as pro bono counsel and mentors for the student volunteers. Twenty-four of these lawyers have participated to date. As cases are referred during each semester, volunteer attorney/ mentors are paired with students to work on these cases. The clients are represented by the lawyers and assisted by the students. The clinic currently has volunteers from many of the large law firms in Atlanta, including Alston & Bird, King & Spalding, Kilpatrick Townsend, Ogletree Deakins, McGuire Woods, Baker Donelson, Hunton & Williams, and Troutman Sanders. Equally as important, there are several practitioners in the area of veterans’ disability law who have volunteered.
The Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans opened its doors in February of 2013, and, operating for the past year, the clinic has been a huge success. The focus of the work of the clinic is on the representation of veterans with service connected disabilities. To date, the clinic has had 35 student volunteers working on 31 cases for veterans and their family members. As of March 2013, there are 17 recorded legal clinics at law schools across the country, but the Emory Clinic is the first such clinic in Georgia and one of the few existing in the South. At Emory, the Veterans Clinic has more volunteers than any of the other clinics at the school. It is also the only clinical program currently available to first-year students.
The clinic has already obtained several successful dispositions despite the slow-moving nature of the VA process. For example, resolution of a VA disability and pension case normally takes at least one year, while an appeal of a decision by the regional director may take two to three years, or even longer, before being considered by the Board of Veterans Appeals. For one client with a 100 percent disability rating for PTSD, a VA determination of incompetency was reversed. For the same client, the VA issued an additional special compensation award of $1,160 per month for the physical effects of the veteran’s PTSD condition. Of the five cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, clients have already prevailed in two cases. In both situations, the clients’ disability claims were remanded to the Board of Veterans Appeals for further consideration of the veterans’ claims.
The clinic has also succeeded in helping veterans navigate internal VA procedures. One such veteran attended Georgia State University on the GI Bill. For two years, the VA deposited the Veteran’s GI benefits into his personal bank account, which were then used to pay GSU. But after those two years, the veteran’s benefits were inexplicably transferred into a bank account that was not his, at a bank that he had never used. For the next several months the veteran repeatedly asked the VA to fix the mistake. The summer term ended and he was forced to take out loans in order to continue attending school. Meanwhile, due to a mistake in GSU’s system, the VA determined that the veteran owed the VA a semester’s worth of tuition. Unable to pay his “debt,” the VA threatened to garnish the veteran’s disability benefits—the benefits that paid his low-income rent. At this point, not only was the veteran going to be unable to attend school, but he was also going to end up homeless. He had been set to graduate this Fall semester.
Fortunately, this young veteran talked to one of the student volunteers at the VA Stand Down mentioned earlier in the article. Although his case did not technically meet clinic guidelines, he was accepted as quickly as possible. The clinic reached out to the VA on the client’s behalf in September. Extremely concerned by the veteran’s situation, the VA re-routed his benefits to the correct bank account in just two weeks. On the day he discovered that his money had been returned to his account, he called the clinic exclaiming, “It’s all there! It’s back, all of it. I can’t thank you guys enough!” The clinic work in this case was also applauded by VA Legal Counsel, George Bradford who said, “Please keep up the excellent work.”
The clinic strives to provide clients with an overall positive experience through attorney-client relationships, student-client relationships and concern for a client’s overall needs beyond just the presented legal issues. Attorney-client relationships are essential to a positive experience. Clients appreciate an attorney who actually cares about their problems. The attorney’s interaction with the client often has the greatest impact in fostering trust between the veteran and the legal community. “To have a successful high-powered attorney, helping a blue collar guy like me, was just something I couldn’t, can’t, explain. I’m blown away by how giving the guy is, how down to earth he is,” one client said. To date, our attorney volunteers have been exemplary. The clinic hopes that through its work, it will help foster a positive relationship between veterans and the overall legal community.
Students also play a critical role. Although students receive probono hours, clinic work is intensive and time consuming. The students who volunteer for the clinic are therefore very client focused. Veterans have frequently commented on student dedication. “The help I’ve gotten from my student,” one veteran said, “I’m just in awe. She’s all ears—when I talk I know she’s listening. It’s real life, it’s my life, and she wants to learn it.” Students at the clinic treat client cases seriously—it is not a classroom project but a case central to that individual’s life. These positive interactions not only help the client, but also encourage and prepare the student to continue to contribute to the pro bono community.
The clinic also tries to identify any issues that the veteran may have other than those initially presented to the clinic. As referenced above, the clinic recently partnered with Alston & Bird to provide wills, trusts and estates services to existing clients. The clinic also helps with non-legal issues, having created, for example, a list of veteran aid organizations approved by the VA. Veterans applaud this attention to the entire person. “You guys [the clinic], take care of the whole picture, the whole person. I’m not just a number. I get help face-to-face. Now I’m not asking for help— I’m being given help that I didn’t even know I needed. I could never put into words how grateful I am for y’all.” The clinic aims to be a resource to the veteran community. Even if the clinic cannot take on the veteran as a client, students will still attempt to refer the veteran to appropriate organizations. The final key component of the clinic involves the attorney-student relationship. These relationships often directly impact the client. As one veteran observed, “It’s good to see those people [attorney mentors] that are just more than wiling to help someone along like they were helped along; kind of like passing it on to the next generation of lawyers.” Good attorney mentors coupled with dedicated students are key. A strong attorney- student relationship creates a more welcoming environment for the client, and a good attorney mentor provides the student with an invaluable role model.
Drew Early concluded, “Coupling the Emory effort with the other ongoing activities of the State Bar’s Military Legal Assistance Program has resulted in verified, quantitative enhancements in legal support to our state’s military, veterans and their families. I commend Emory for their initiative in bringing this clinic into reality. At the same time, it sets the tone for the Emory students in demonstrating what the legal profession is all about—not just taking care of individual clients, but also serving as a positive force in society.”
Challenge for the Future
The clinic does have significant challenges, mainly associated with fundraising. It needs to raise sufficient funds to hire a director who will also teach a class for credit on veterans disability law. There is also a need for more volunteer attorney/mentors who would accept a VA disability case and a discharge upgrade. Volunteers can contact Lane Dennard at 404-572- 2507 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The work is time-sensitive and demanding for students who volunteer. For some students, this is a barrier to participation in the clinic. A course for credit would substantially increase the clinic potential case load and allow the clinic to accept more intensive cases such as those before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The clinic would not limit itself to students taking the course, but would instead continue to be available to the general student body. With this model, the clinic would maximize its potential student volunteer pool and thereby increase its potential capability to help more veterans.
The clinic also plans to create new outreach programs as needs are identified. For example, one program is the Homeless Veteran and Mental Health Initiative. This initiative will involve the combined efforts of faculty, staff and students from Emory’s School of Public Health and the Emory Medical School.
State Bar President Charles L. Ruffin observed, “The State Bar of Georgia strongly supports efforts to assist our returning veterans with their unmet legal needs. The Emory Clinic is one more way that lawyers and law students can leverage limited resources to help in this critical effort. I commend Emory Law School, Lane Dennard and Charles Shanor for leading this vital activity. As is true of all such efforts, money and volunteers are required to support these activities. I hope that Georgia lawyers will contribute their service and the funds to help continue this good work.”
The clinic directors and student volunteers appreciate the strong support by State Bar leadership and the attorneys who have volunteered to be pro bono counsel and mentors for the students. The Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans is a testament to what can be accomplished by volunteer attorneys and volunteer students. Great appreciation is also offered to active service members and veterans. Thank you for your service to our country.
H. Lane Dennard Jr. is a retired partner at King & Spalding, and for the past year has been co-director of the Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans along with Prof. Charles Shanor. He is also a veteran, having served as a Captain and Infantry Company Commander in Vietnam in 1969.
Rachel L. Erdman is a third-year law student at Emory and student coordinator at the Emory Law Volunteer Clinic. For her work in assisting the startup of the clinic, she received the Emory University 2013 Leadership, Service and Diversity Award. She also took part in the Emory Law School Supreme Court Advocacy Project and was Outstanding Member and author of the Brief of the Year. She has accepted a job with Finnegan’s Atlanta office.