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Military Law,
Law Practice

Apr. 16, 2021

How California attorneys can help our veterans

The veteran community has unique needs as a client base which differ from civilian clientele. Consider some examples: A veteran is a party to a civil lawsuit and has to leave the country on deployment; frequent deployments alter family dynamics and a veteran needs the help of a family law lawyer; or a veteran may face eviction after being unable to work due to injuries sustained on active duty.

Katie Binkley

Staff Attorney, Veterans Legal Institute

Caitlin Emmons

Staff Attorney, Veterans Legal Institute

The veteran community has unique needs as a client base which differ from civilian clientele. Consider some examples: A veteran is a party to a civil lawsuit and has to leave the country on deployment; frequent deployments alter family dynamics and a veteran needs the help of a family law lawyer; or a veteran may face eviction after being unable to work due to injuries sustained on active duty.

In addition, there is a veteran-specific component to legal needs faced by veterans. Consider the following example of a discharge upgrade case. When a veteran discharges from the service, they are given a character of discharge. The benefits available to that veteran (whether health care, GI bill, etc.) depend on the characterization of their discharge. This may seem cut and dry, but a less than honorable discharge may be given to a veteran who acted out or self-medicated due to post-traumatic stress disorder, as retaliation for reporting military sexual trauma or even as a result of racial discrimination. A less-than-honorable discharge can cause a veteran to feel shame or avoid talking about their service, creating another barrier to access to veteran specific resources. When an attorney can help that veteran upgrade their discharge, they help that veteran gain access to health care, employment opportunities, as well as a sense of justice and pride that their service now bears the recognition it deserves. Having an attorney advocate in their corner could make the difference in persuading a Discharge Review Board to make the change. The overall rate of success at the board, including a significant amount of pro se applications, is approximately 35%, while organizations that provide this specific legal service have a success rate of nearly 85%. Attorney advocacy makes a tremendous difference in the likelihood of success.

While a veteran can get help from legal aids like Veterans Legal Institute, there are different opportunities for attorneys to get involved in a way that works for them. In the easiest example, an attorney can take a veteran's case on a pro bono basis, serving as their attorney of record. If an attorney doesn't have the capacity to take on a case as a full attorney of record, they can provide one time assistance at a legal clinic. At Veterans Legal Institute, multiple clinics are held monthly -- some are specific to a practice area (like family law), and others are general intake clinics (like the Veterans Legal Institute clinic at the VA Hospital in Long Beach or Veteran Services Offices around Southern California). Clinical assistance can be as simple as a one-time consultation, helping a veteran complete court documents, or advising him or her on their best arguments to use before a judge.

What may feel like a simple contribution on the behalf of the attorney can make a huge difference to the veteran client. For those unfamiliar with the legal system, a legal issue which might be a routine case to an attorney could also be a source of anxiety for a client. If that client suffers from a mental health condition like PTSD or traumatic brain injury, that emotional burden could be intensified, causing an overwhelmed veteran to ignore the issue and face adverse legal consequences. Listening to a veteran's story can also validate a client's experience, making the veteran feel heard in a world that all too commonly brushes off the concerns of those in vulnerable populations. Giving a consultation on strategy and advice might help a veteran feel confident tackling a hearing on their own, as an attorney can provide legal advice that the court Self Help centers cannot. Attorneys can empower veterans to become self-sufficient in these matters.

By contributing at a level which suits their needs, a private attorney can help expand the reach of legal aid available to the veteran community. Because veteran clients experience such a wide range of legal issues, attorneys in every kind of practice can integrate this pro bono work into their practice. Assisting veterans in areas of law the attorney does not regularly practice in can also expand the attorney's skill set, while greatly benefiting the veteran client. For example, applications to the discharge review boards do not require any litigation experience and allow attorneys to hone their writing skills while advocating in a meaningful way.

While serving one's nation can bring honor and a host of benefits, the cost of deployments, frequent moves, physical and emotional injuries can upend the lives of veterans and their families as they attempt to re-enter civilian life. Attorneys can ease the burden for veterans and their families by using skills they already possess. An attorney can have a life changing impact on the life of a veteran, allowing them to dream again.

For an in-depth discussion of how attorneys can help veterans, and to receive an hour of MCLE, register for the Southeast District Bar Association's upcoming virtual event on April 28. The program is co-sponsored by the Mexican American Bar Association. RSVP to SEDBAinfo@gmail.com or www.SEDBA.org.

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