UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Over the past two academic years, juris doctor (J.D.) and master of laws (LL.M.) students at Penn State Law in University Park have assisted 30 veterans and their families in resolving legal matters connected to their military service. These students’ work was carried out through the Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic, one of 11 clinics operated by Penn State Law in University Park. All told, the work undertaken by the clinics—including the Veterans Clinic—helps to advance the University’s land-grant mission.
Professor Michele Vollmer, associate dean for clinics and experiential learning, oversees Penn State Law’s Clinical Program in addition to being the director of the Veterans Clinic. She said that the clinics have three goals that help the University carry out its land-grant mission: to provide pro bono services to the underserved in our communities; to teach law students valuable legal skills for practice; and to decrease the access to justice gap by inspiring young lawyers to serve in public interest jobs or provide pro bono services during their careers.
IMPACT ACROSS PENNSYLVANIA
Since 2015, the Veterans Clinic has represented 87 veterans from 23 counties across the Commonwealth, as well as Penn State faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Clinic students have won over $4.5 million in benefits for these clients.
To increase its pro bono impact, the clinic answers cold calls and emails, and hosts one-day pop-up legal clinics. Through these efforts, over 325 other veterans have received assistance.
Additionally, in nearly every year since 2016, the clinic has hosted a Wills for Heroes clinic in partnership with the Centre County Bar Association. A similar event is planned for November 2023, with details to be announced at a later date.
In recognition of the clinic’s outreach across Pennsylvania, Professor Vollmer recently received the Seven Seals Award from the Pennsylvania Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, an office within the Department of the Defense.
IMPACT ON VETERANS AND THEIR FAMILIES
During the 2022-23 academic year, 17 J.D. students and one LL.M. student assisted 19 veterans and their families, while 15 J.D. students and one LL.M. student assisted 11 veterans during the 2021-22 academic year.
Veterans can wait a long time to have their matters ruled upon by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The Veterans Clinic works to file multiple claims and appeals for each client, spanning work over several semesters by different students, to achieve victories through ongoing monthly disability payments and back pay. Vollmer said that, for many veterans, a denial of a VA claim makes them feel as if their service and sacrifice for their country is invalidated. She added that clients often remark that students’ legal work restores that validation, not only through VA payments but through close listening, paying attention to details, explaining complex legal concepts in ways they can understand, and putting it all together in an argument for them.
2022-2023 Academic Year
In Fall 2022, now-Penn State Law graduates Carey Field, Jessica Warwick, and Kaitlyn Boswell, and current third-year law student (3L) Jeanette Potter drafted appellate briefs for two families of Vietnam veterans who passed away from acute myeloid leukemia. They also prepared both families for evidentiary hearings which took place in June and August 2023.
Now-Penn State Law graduates Sean Duffy, Adam Kleiber, and current 3L students, Ari Geselowitz and Jorge Garcia, prepared and filed new claims for two veterans serving overseas after 9/11, and two Vietnam veterans. Two of those four clients have already won their claims: a client serving in Kuwait and a Vietnam veteran were both awarded a 100% disability rating for leukemia. The clinic also won service connection for a heart attack and heart disease for the Vietnam veteran.
Nine J.D. students and one LL.M. student worked tirelessly in Spring 2023 to represent seven clients with complex claims, including four Vietnam veterans, and three post-9/11 veterans. These students have already won a 10% rating for hypertension and an increase from 30 to 50% for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for one Vietnam veteran. They worked on increasing ratings for two of the other Vietnam veterans for prostate cancer and PTSD and assisted the post-9/11 veterans with claims for cancer from stateside military base toxin exposure, medical military retirement, and knee injuries that could relate to a congenital defect.
Spring 2023 clinic students included now-Penn State Law graduate Jessica Warwick, LL.M. student Akshaya Senthil Kumar, and current 3L students Alicia Grana, Amira Khaled Abdelwahab, Kristiana Stiles, Holly Christensen, Emilee Kula, Samantha Tropp, Kendal Ashman and Erik Blasic.
2021-2022 Academic Year
Clinic students from the 2021-22 academic year recently learned that they won service connection with 100% disability ratings for a post-9/11 Marine who served in Afghanistan, a National Guard reservist who served in Cuba with hip injuries, and two Vietnam veterans with leukemia. They also won a complex appeal for a third Vietnam veteran with PTSD that provided him with 30 years of back pay.
The 100% rating for the Marine was a complex claim as the VA had rated the veteran’s PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) damages together, and for much less than 100%. Clinic students were able to convince the VA to rate the conditions separately.
One of the Vietnam veterans sadly passed before his appeal was won, but his spouse was able to receive nearly two years of back pay and ongoing monthly survivor benefits for life; the other Vietnam veteran’s claim is still on appeal.
They also handled an education appeal for a Penn State graduate, and investigated whether a Penn State employee could appeal a denial of education benefits.
Clinic students in 2021-2022 included now-Penn State Law graduates Sean Duffy, Jeremiah Parlock, Audry Thompson, Haley Loquercio, Caroline Skaff, Cole Dorsey, Michael Houlihan, Sharai Bryan, Shane Kaliszewski, Molly Pohlhaus, and Christine Munz (LL.M), as well as current third-year J.D. student (3L) Sarah Rivaud.
Also in 2021-2022, Penn State Law graduates and Army JAG lawyers Reed Hennessy and Carter Westphal worked on projects to advocate for new VA laws, and educated National Guard units about protections for reservists under the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.
IMPACT ON LAW STUDENTS
Veterans Clinic students gain valuable skills in advocacy, appellate brief writing, presentation of witness testimony at evidentiary hearings, and client interviewing and counseling. The clinic often obtains medical evidence in the form of treating or expert opinions to help veterans to win claims. Expert opinions are possible because of donations from former clients and supporters of the clinic’s work, Vollmer said, adding that the Penn State Law community is grateful for that support.
All told, their work with the clinic provides these students with hands-on, practical experience.
“My experience in clinic allowed me to develop my legal skills by applying classroom knowledge to real-world issues that veterans face, and to learn more about this community’s legal needs,” said current 3L Erik Blasic. “With the skills I learned in the clinic and from interacting with veterans, I became a better advocate for veterans.”
Law students in the Veterans Clinic can earn 4 or 5 experiential credits while representing veterans in their VA disability claims and appeals. Recent Penn State Law graduate, Jessica Warwick, who also obtained a dual graduate degree from Penn State in health administration, took the clinic course in both semesters of her final year in law school.
“My time working with the Veterans Clinic has been invaluable,” Warwick said. “I applied to work with the clinic because I am interested in health and administrative law. However, the clinic made me realize I have passion for helping veterans. Due to this new discovered passion, I will be dedicating my pro bono work towards veterans issues after graduation.”
Like Warwick, other students mention a change in their career paths, after working with the clinic, to pursue veterans law. One example is current second-year law student (2L) Katherine Jennings, a clinic research assistant who recently accepted a summer intern position for 2024 with Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick LTD, a law firm specializing in veterans law that also employs two other Penn State Law graduates. Additionally, three Penn State Law graduates have gone on to work for the VA, and four others (two graduates and two current students) have worked for non-profit organizations assisting veterans.
UPCOMING FREE LEGAL CLINIC FOR VETERANS
Veterans Clinic students have been invited to attend the Pennsylvania Bar Association Pro Bono Program’s Veterans Free Legal Clinic on Saturday, September 9, 2023 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event will take place at the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Blair County. Students will be supervised by local attorneys and will meet with veterans for an hour to consult on various legal topics. Legal issues to be addressed will include housing, bankruptcy, custody/visitation/child support orders, divorce, social security, and others. To register, veterans are asked to call 814-943-8164 and to speak with Holly Dick at extension 14891.