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From Clinic to Career: Penn State Law alumna inspires service

Growing up, Rebecca Buckleystein—a Penn State Law alumna and cofounder of the Veterans and Service Members Legal Clinic—was always eager to get out into the world and start working to make a difference.

As a child in an area of New York marked by economic disparity, she was exposed from a young age to the realities and impacts of poverty—and knew, instinctively, that she had to do something about it. With no plans for law school, she graduated from Hampshire College and dove headfirst in the non-profit sector, working on issues of gun violence, domestic violence, and empowering low-income women and foster youth.

“I started to notice that the people who were really able to help provide the radical change that was needed on these issues were lawyers,” Buckleystein said. “When attorneys would step in to work with us, the level of systemic change we were able to achieve was so much greater. That’s when I knew going to law school was the next step in my career – I wanted to make long lasting social change.”

But she knew not just any law school would work for her. She needed an institution that could provide a world-class education and prepare her for a unique career working at the intersection of public interest and agricultural law.

Buckleystein says Penn State Law was the right choice for both of those reasons, and prepared her for her current career at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a non-profit law firm that fights for justice and individual rights alongside the most exploited communities of our society. But, shortly after starting law school, she realized she didn’t want to wait until after graduation to get to work—and she knew just what she wanted to do.

“I Had to Do Something”

“I was learning about the legal injustices that our veterans face at about the same time my cousin came back from serving in the Middle East and faced a lot of those same issues, ultimately passing away,” Buckleystein said. “I couldn’t help but think if he’d had the services he needed, he’d still be with us. I realized that I had to do something—a recurring theme in my life.”

When she approached Professor James Houck, the former Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Navy and interim dean of the law school at the time, with her idea for what would become the Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic, she found enthusiastic support in helping to make that dream a reality.

“Everyone at the law school, from Dean Houck to the faculty, were incredibly supportive of this idea. I was really blown away,” Buckleystein said. “What’s unique about Penn State is that if you come in with an idea, if you want to make a difference, the default answer you’ll find is ‘yes, it’s possible, you can do it,’ and that had a big impact on me.”

Working alongside her classmate Justin Bish and Director of Clinics and Experiential Learning Michael Foreman, Buckleystein spent her 2L year tirelessly striving to get the new veterans clinic up and running. After countless hours of work and support from the Penn State Law administration and the local legal community, the Penn State Law Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic officially opened its doors in May 2015.

“The very first day we announced that we were open, I remember Professor Foreman calling Justin and I into his office to tell us his phone was blowing up with calls from people who were asking for our services,” Buckleystein said. “We were really responding to a need that existed in our community.”

Rebecca Buckleystein and Justin Bish were instrumental in the creation of the Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic. (Photo by the Centre Daily Times, republished with permission.)

“It Benefits the Entire Legal Profession”

Buckleystein helped pick the clinic’s first case, which involved a Vietnam veteran exposed to Agent Orange who later developed leukemia and was struggling with the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs to access the medical benefits he earned. It was a long and complex case, one that lasted for years after Buckleystein graduated, but the results finally came back this past year: the VA acknowledged the veteran’s medical conditions were service-related and awarded him their highest possible disability rating. Current clinic director, Michele Vollmer, contacted Rebecca at the California Rural Legal Assistance with the good news.

“When Professor Vollmer emailed me to tell me that his case had been resolved, I immediately started to cry in my office; I was just so happy for our client, who had been waiting for years and years for this,” Buckleystein said. “A case like this can take a long time, unfortunately, but I knew when I graduated that I was leaving his case in the best hands possible, and I was right.”

In the years since Buckleystein’s graduation, the veteran’s clinic has continued to grow and win victories on behalf of veterans in the Penn State and State College communities. The clinic was even recently awarded a $10,000 grant from the Veterans Pro Bono Legal Consortium in Washington, D.C. to help pay for medical professional opinions needed to support veterans’ disability claims.

To Buckleystein, the benefits of having a veterans clinic at Penn State Law are numerous and multifaceted: local veterans are able to access passionate advocates for their cases, students have a chance to gain practical legal experience, and students are exposed to the joy and rewards of public interest work.

“At CRLA, we are lucky to receive support from private sector lawyers, and the lawyers who jump into our cases are those who really care and want to do something good,” Buckleystein said. “So a clinic like this is a way to instill that passion in pro bono work, that passion for helping the underdog. It doesn’t just benefit the students. It benefits the entire legal profession.”

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