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Multi-State Veterans Conference Generates New Ideas and Enthusiasm for Regional Collaboration

In late 2013, the City Bar Justice Center and the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center co-sponsored a conference in Hartford on legal problems faced by veterans. Legal services providers from 10 different organizations from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Maine attended the Veterans Legal Services Provider Conference. The group of veterans advocates included representatives from bar associations, local and national legal service providers, law firms and law schools all committed to serving veterans.

The participants’ diverse perspectives and a range of expertise in different legal practice areas provided for a unique platform for collaboration to assist veterans.  Lawyers working on veterans issues took this opportunity to discuss the challenges of their work and strategize about solutions. A significant issue that many veterans face is difficulty in accessing VA disability benefits for injuries related to their service. The attendees discussed the obstacle of long wait times at the VA and regional differences in the processing of these claims. The Veterans Assistance Project at the City Bar Justice Center recruits, trains, and mentors pro bono volunteers from firms and corporations around New York City to help veterans with these claims for benefits.  Participants also discussed ways they support the pro bono volunteers who work with their organizations to most effectively leverage legal services for veterans.

The attendees agreed that there is a great need for more legal assistance for veterans, mainly in the areas of family law and housing.  A bill is currently pending in the U.S. Senate that would authorize the VA to fund legal services for veterans. The legal services providers that assist veterans are watching this bill with great interest and working to make the need for legal services known.

Veterans who are given less than honorable discharges from the military often face additional significant barriers adjusting to civilian life.  These discharges can impact veterans’ ability to find work and can make them ineligible for important VA benefits, such as the GI Bill, healthcare or disability compensation. Many of the legal services providers that attended the conference are interested in helping veterans file for discharge upgrades given the lack of services available in this area.  Overcoming these discharges can be an important first step in allowing veterans to become self-sufficient. Caitlin Kilroy, Staff Attorney on the City Bar Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project noted, “In our clinics, we have seen many deserving veterans who have been discharged for behavior that likely resulted from an underlying mental health issue, such as PTSD.”

Professor Michael Wishnie of the Yale Veterans Legal Services clinic delivered the keynote address. He spoke about the wide-ranging legal issues that the clinic tackles on behalf of veterans. Each clinic student works on both individual matters with a veteran, such as an application for VA benefits, and on systemic legal issues. For example, the clinic has sought public records regarding the incidence of sexual assault in the military, fought to expand pretrial diversion programs for veterans, and sued the military for failing to properly review discharge upgrade applications from veterans with PTSD. The depth and breadth of the work of the Yale Veterans Legal Services clinic inspired attendees to discuss ways they might be able to expand the scope of the services they offer to veterans.

The networking opportunity and chance to pool expertise and resources provided by the conference was invaluable. Carol Bockner, Director of the Veterans Assistance Project and Director of Pro Bono Initiatives at the City Bar Justice Center said, “We look forward to continuing to work together in our shared mission to help veterans in need.”

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