UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State Law has launched a new legal clinic designed to provide hands-on practice experience for law students as they represent veterans and current servicemembers in the unique legal issues they encounter.
The Penn State Law Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic is designed to fill a critical gap that exists between the demand for specialized legal assistance and the limited supply of such services in Pennsylvania and across the nation. Under the direction of Penn State Law clinical professor Michael Foreman, clinic students will earn academic credit while providing assistance in all aspects of the legal process.
“There is a huge disconnect between the legal needs of our veterans and servicemembers and the availability of attorneys who provide this kind of specialized service,” says James W. Houck, interim dean of Penn State Law and retired U.S. Navy vice admiral and judge advocate general. “In Pennsylvania alone, there are nearly 1 million veterans and about 19,000 members of the National Guard. Given this need, and Penn State’s continued commitment to veterans, servicemembers, and their families, there is really no better venue for a legal clinic devoted to serving veterans and the men and women of our armed forces.”
At the outset, the clinic will focus its work in three areas: Veterans Benefits appeals, veterans’ rights cases, and state and federal policy matters that pertain to veterans and servicemembers.
On average, veterans wait up to 273 days to have their disability claims resolved before they begin receiving payments, and the process takes an average of 327 days for first-time claimants. If a claimant is denied benefits and seeks an appeal, however, the average wait on appeal is several years. Recent estimates show that approximately 287,000 veterans have current appeals pending. According to clinic initiator and member Justin Bish, the complicated appeals process leads to many veterans giving up on their claims despite their merits.
“The process for filing a claim for assistance with the Department of Veterans Affairs is relatively straightforward, and local Veterans Affairs Offices have a variety of services to help veterans initially file their claims,” says Bish, a third-year student at Penn State Law and a first lieutenant in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. “But if the claim is denied, the appellate process is best navigated with legal assistance. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of attorneys who focus their work in this area, and, as a result, a lot of claims that could win on appeal are not pursued further.”
Once fully operational, the Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic will help veterans appeal their claims after a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) has been filed by a local Veterans Affairs officer and the case has been referred to the clinic by the local Veterans Affairs director.
The clinic will also handle certain veterans’ rights cases that it selects based on the potential for the case to have a broad impact on the rights of veterans and servicemembers. Such cases include those involving the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which protects civilian job rights and benefits for veterans and members of the active and Reserve components of the U.S. armed forces, and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), which provides protections for military members as they enter active duty.
“Veterans and servicemembers have certain rights guaranteed by the federal government that provide protections for them relating to employment, legal contracts, and financial and other agreements,” says Foreman, who also directs Penn State Law’s Civil Rights Appellate Clinic and serves as director of clinics and experiential learning. “Our clinic will consider cases relating to these protections when we determine that litigation is likely to build a broad precedent in favor of veterans and servicemembers beyond just the individual bringing the case. Working on impact litigation cases like these will allow us to have a far-reaching effect on veterans’ and servicemembers’ rights.”
The clinic will also work to positively impact veterans’ and servicemembers’ rights by working to influence and develop state and federal legislation in that area.
“There are a lot of opportunities to better the lives of veterans and servicemembers through policy work, in addition to legal representation,” says clinic member and third-year Penn State Law student Rebecca Buckley-Stein, who was instrumental in creating the clinic. “For instance, right now there are 22 bills pending in the House of Representatives and another 10 in the Senate, all of which would, in some manner, affect the lives of veterans and servicemembers.”
Buckley-Stein says the clinic foresees a range of possibility for policy work in this area, including legislation related to addressing military voting issues, the creation of Veterans’ Courts, issues arising under the Uniform Deployed Parents Custody and Visitation Act, and regulations to improve the lives of those sexually assaulted during military service.
In August, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, which is aimed at improving the VA health system and health care for veterans. Part of that legislation calls for using student labor to help solve the massive backlog of disability claims. The Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic will help answer that call, and also fulfills a resolution from the American Bar Association urging law schools to create veterans law clinics to help ensure veterans’ legal needs are met nationwide.
“We’re excited about playing a role in this national push to provide more pro bono legal services to veterans and the men and women of the armed forces,” says Associate Professor of Legal Writing and one of the organizers of the clinic Michele Vollmer. “And we are really looking forward to working with all of the other Penn State units that provide services to veterans and further contributing to the University’s continued commitment to serving the needs of those who serve our country.”
One example of this commitment is the University’s Office of Veterans Programs, which is a comprehensive, direct service unit for veterans and VA benefits recipients, providing services in outreach, certification, and general counseling for veterans and their families. The University also runs the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness, which was established in 2011 to provide support to military families and those who serve them. The organization focuses on catalyzing new research designed to translate science from multiple disciplines into the development, implementation, dissemination, and evaluation of evidence-based programs and practices designed to bolster military family readiness, resilience, and well-being.
Penn State is currently ranked as the second best university for veterans, according to U.S. News & World Report, based on benefits the University offers to help veterans and active-duty servicemembers pursue a college education.
With the addition of the Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic and the Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic launching in spring 2016, Penn State Law will offer students eight clinics and a practicum, covering a broad spectrum of legal areas, including arts and entertainment law, civil rights, criminal justice, family law, immigration law, international development, and rural economic development.