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Supporting Our Troops through the Law

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News & Media

Supporting Our Troops through the Law

Lessons from Year One of the City Bar Justice Center's Veterans Assistance Project

Convinced that having skilled legal counsel greatly improves veterans' chances of receiving the benefits they deserve, the City Bar Justice Center launched the Veterans Assistance Project last October. With the guidance of Justice Center staff, volunteer lawyers are helping veterans file claims and appeals with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Over the course of the year, more than 150 veterans met with legal counsel, with the Project leveraging over half a million dollars in free legal services for veterans.

Unfortunately, services are far from catching up with the need, and the strain on the system will only intensify as more and more veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts file new claims. As word has gotten out about the Veterans Assistance Project, the Justice Center has heard from a number of organizations and law firms interested in participating or starting similar programs. With that in mind, we asked Justice Center Executive Director Lynn Kelly and Director of Pro Bono Initiatives Carol Bockner to share the lessons they've learned in the first year of their program:

Establish Strong Leadership at the Outset
The leadership and involvement of 10 founding law firms helped to guide the early days of the project, recruit volunteers and staff the clinics. Founding firms include Reed Smith LLP; Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP; Covington & Burling LLP; Howrey LLP; Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw LLP; McCarter & English LLP; Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP; Paul Weiss, Rifkind & Wharton LLP; Shearman & Sterling LLP; Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP; and Winston & Strawn LLP. Over 40 firms are now involved.

Focus
The Justice Center's Veterans Assistance Project decided to focus on assisting veterans in obtaining disability benefits and handling initial applications, reopenings and appeals. Research showed this to be an area of unmet need, where having a lawyer makes a difference in the outcome of a claim. Defining the pro bono services allows the Project to handle more cases and train more volunteers.

Start Small
The Justice Center chose to launch the project on a modest scale to ensure a steady yet manageable flow of clients, a workable ratio between clients and lawyers, and that the services offered would prove to be the ones most needed.

Establish Partnerships
The Justice Center partnered with the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs and the Commissioner of Veterans Affairs, as well as with many of the veteran's advocacy organizations in New York City, including Wounded Warriors and Disabled Veterans of America. The Project also works with the Veterans Administration and hospitals. Veterans calling NYC's 311 line for assistance are referred to the Veteran's Assistance Project. Staff resources need to be devoted to building these networks or the cases will not flow.

Recruit and Train Volunteers
Expect a large turnout from the legal profession. The Justice Center did a pilot training for 70 pro bono volunteers and started a waiting list of lawyers who wanted to volunteer. Within six months, more than 200 volunteer lawyers had been trained.

Provide Mentors for Volunteers
Few volunteer attorneys had any experience with Veterans Disability issues, and there were few available resources. In addition to comprehensive training, it has proven invaluable to have an experienced mentor available for volunteers.

Outreach in the Client Community is Crucial
Developing outreach materials and conducting extensive in-person outreach are crucial for an active project. The Justice Center and its law firm partners regularly visit homeless shelters, drop-in centers, advocacy groups, colleges and other locations to inform veterans of their services.

Expect New Issues to Emerge
During the first year, the Justice Center spotted several issues to keep an eye on, including traumatic brain injury, survivors' benefits and sexual abuse. Based on these observations, trainings are being updated to assist pro bono attorneys in interviewing and issue-spotting skills in these areas, and capacity is being increased to meet the emerging legal needs of soldiers currently being discharged with traumatic brain injury.

Make Use of Technology
The Justice Center has actively used social networking and other Internet sites to reach out to the younger veteran community.

Scale Up
With the structure, materials and network in place, the Justice Center will be hosting additional trainings to accommodate the positive response from volunteers and firms.

If interested in participating in the Veterans Assistance Project, please contact Carol Bockner at cbockner@nycbar.org or 212.382.4714.

This article originally appeared in the City Bar's monthly newsletter, 44th Street Notes, in October 2008.

Supporting Our Troops through the Law