CLEA Award recognizes Christopher Melendez ’15 and his service to veterans

Christopher Melendez ’15 received the Outstanding Clinical Student Award from the Clinical Legal Education Association. The award is presented annually to one student from each law school in recognition of outstanding clinical coursework and contributions to the clinical community.

103013_Veterans_240.jpg

Credit: Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff PhotographerChristopher Melendez ’15 (third from the right) with Dean Martha Minow (center left), judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and students who were part of Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic.

Melendez was nominated by Clinical Professor of Law Daniel Nagin for his work with the Veterans Legal Clinic. Over the course of his three years at Harvard Law, Melendez has logged hundreds of pro bono hours in service to the community and excelled as a clinical law student.

“I have had a fantastic experience working with the Veterans Legal Clinic,” he said. “Not only did I receive an immensely practical education, but I was also able to work with engaging clients and novel issues of law. Having left the Marine Corps to attend law school, the Veterans Legal Clinic also gave me the personal satisfaction of connecting with a broad community of Massachusetts veterans.”

Melendez first joined the clinic as a summer intern during his 1L year. He worked long hours crafting appellate briefs, representing clients, and interviewing new clients who contacted the clinic. He then enrolled in the Veterans Legal Clinic as a 2L clinical student. During his first semester in the clinic, along with student co-counsel, Melendez briefed and argued a significant case before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The case involved a question of first impression regarding whether the Court’s own filing deadline for commencing an appeal from an adverse VA decision could be extended because of a veteran’s difficulties readjusting to civilian life following a combat deployment.

“Chris spent day after day preparing for the argument and worked seamlessly with his fellow students on the team to consider the case from every angle,” said Nagin. In a precedential decision, Ausmer v. Shinseki, 26 Vet.App. 392 (2013), the Court ruled in favor of the veteran and for the first time applied the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to the Court’s own filing deadline. The decision not only allowed this individual veteran’s disability appeal to be heard on the merits, but protects the appellate rights of other veterans who have service-connected disabilities and experienced multiple deployments.

“Together with his fellow students on the team, it was Chris’ determination, creativity, smarts, and grit that helped bring justice to this veteran and many other veterans who will benefit from the Court’s decision,” said Nagin.

“Arguing Ausmer v. Shinseki  was the highlight of my experience at HLS,” said Melendez. “I met esteemed judges, set precedent and was able to see the case through to a successful remand to the VA. Because of this experience, I can head into professional life fully prepared to conduct veterans advocacy throughout the VA appeals process.”

“I am also leaving HLS with a deep sense of the problems—and achievements—of the VA as well as the place that intelligently directed advocacy can play in its reform.”

Melendez went on to work on countless veterans’ cases involving a range of legal issues. Among other things, he represented disabled veterans in estate planning matters, including drafting a sophisticated trust instrument to help protect the limited assets of one client facing serious health issues. He also helped mentor new clinic students. Even after completing his clinic semester, his dedication found new outlets. He helped the clinic staff the legal assistance tent at Massachusetts Stand Down, a day-long summer event to link homeless and at-risk veterans to services. After graduation, Melendez will join the Boston office of the international law firm Morgan Lewis.