HLS establishes new Veterans Legal Clinic

The Board of Veterans’ Appeals denies a soldier’s claim for disability benefits for an injury to his lower extremities. But the decision is handed down while the soldier is serving in Afghanistan, and he doesn’t realize he has the right to appeal until after he returns from his deployment—after the appeal deadline has passed.

For students in HLS’s new Veterans Legal Clinic, the chance to argue that the appeal deadline should have been tolled and the case allowed to proceed on the merits is proving invaluable educationally and personally.

“As law students, we like to think of law as this just machine that works properly, but when you’re introduced to a case like this, it blows your mind,” says Abigail Dwyer ’13, who’s interviewed the client and his wife, and has assisted in drafting a 20-page brief on his behalf. “It’s great to get out of the classroom and do something to help someone deserving.”

With a huge increase in recent years in the number of combat veterans, and an aging veteran population in declining health, the unmet legal needs of veterans overall are exploding. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a backlog of 600,000 benefits cases, according to the New York Times, with veterans waiting an average of 273 days before receiving disability and other benefits, and far longer if they’re applying for the first time. The VA system is complicated and can be frustrating, and for low-income veterans, especially, getting legal aid to navigate it is challenging.

That’s why HLS launched the Veterans Legal Clinic last fall, under the leadership of Clinical Professor Daniel Nagin (right), the new director of community-based lawyering at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center in Jamaica Plain. Nagin joined HLS in June 2012 from the University of Virginia School of Law, where he had founded the Family Resource Clinic to do public benefits litigation. In recent years, he started taking on some benefit cases for military veterans, and, in joining HLS, proposed a Veterans Legal Clinic as part of the Legal Services Center. Dean Martha Minow, a strong supporter of veterans, quickly agreed. With the help of Lisa Dealy, Assistant Dean of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs, who was also enthusiastic about a clinic to serve veterans, planning quickly got underway to launch the program. Enrollment in the Clinic is through the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinical Seminar.

The clinic’s first group of students enrolled in the clinic last fall and this spring, and they are working on a variety of cases for veterans and their family members. In addition to benefits cases before all levels of the process, from local VA regional offices to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC), they also work on discharge upgrades, correction of military records cases, and access to healthcare, financial assistance, and other necessities.

In the fall semester, a clinic student successfully represented a homeless veteran in an appeal hearing before the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services. As a result of the student’s advocacy, the hearing officer rejected the arguments of the municipal agency’s counsel and overturned a decision that had denied financial assistance to the veteran. This semester, clinic students are tackling cases involving a diverse array of issues ranging from pursuing an appeal for a veteran whose VA pension was wrongfully terminated to representing a veteran at a state hearing to challenge a local agency’s failure to process his application for veterans’ benefits timely.

Students work one-on-one with clients and are sometimes teamed with student co-counsel on larger cases. Third-year students Courtney Collins and Andrew Roach are representing a Vietnam veteran in an appeal before the CAVC in a case concerning the client’s entitlement to a higher disability rating from the VA for his service-connected injuries, which have worsened over time.

Nagin was interested in creating the clinic for several reasons, including that there are so few lawyers serving this population despite the immense need. He had also seen up close the struggles that his brother-in-law faced with the VA after returning from serving in Iraq; his brother-in-law lived with Nagin and his family as he attempted to readjust to civilian life and come to terms with his experiences in the war. “When things hit home, that’s a real wakeup call about the countless other veterans facing similar or more daunting obstacles,” Nagin says.

In addition, Nagin saw real value for law students in this type of clinical work. “These cases are very good teaching tools to expose students to legal issues that are rich and complex, not to mention the human dimension of the cases,” Nagin says. Moreover, he adds, many of these cases involve issues related to medical and mental health diagnoses and treatment. “This gives students a great opportunity to interact with medical providers and experts, and consider the intersection of law and medicine.”

Right now, the Veterans Legal Clinic has about 25 clients at various stages of representation, and Nagin is excited about the clinic’s future. Among other things, the Legal Service Center’s Estate Planning Clinic, under the leadership of Clinical Instructor Tamara Kolz Griffin, is pivoting its focus so that it serves veterans and their families. The Clinic is also assisting incarcerated veterans with various legal problems. Nagin and his students have made several presentations to veterans confined in Boston-area jails, and taken on some as clients.

The Clinic has also forged a partnership with one of the nation’s top firms for veterans’ benefits, Chisholm, Chisholm & Kilpatrick in in Providence, R.I., to facilitate students’ participation in appeals before the CAVC. Since the system is so backlogged and cases take so long to reach the CAVC, partnering with the firm gives students the chance to handle cases there while providing clients the continuity of the firm. These veterans’ cases are referred to the Clinic through Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick’s existing pro bono program with the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), the largest veteran service organization in the country. The clients in the program aren’t charged any attorney’s fees; whatever fees are awarded are paid through the Equal Access to Justice Act.

Zachary M. Stolz, an attorney at Chisholm, Chisholm & Kilpatrick who is co-supervising students in two cases, including the one involving the Afghanistan War veteran, says the firm is excited to be working with HLS students. “This partnership gets the students associated with a group of people that need and deserve our help,” says Stolz, an expert in CAVC appeals, “and gives them some good experience in our federal court system.” And, he adds, “The value to our clients is they get some top-notch law students working with them and teaming up with our attorneys.”

When he graduates in May, Michael Lieberman ’13 will clerk for two years before joining a law firm in D.C. in the litigation department. He hadn’t taken any clinical courses before enrolling in the Veterans Legal Clinic this spring, where he’s paired with another student on two cases, including the one involving the Afghanistan War veteran. He expects to be appearing before an administrative agency for an evidentiary hearing on another case before the semester ends, which will be great practical experience, he says. And there’s another benefit he’s found. “The clinic is an opportunity to do good work and help people in need,” Lieberman says.