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Serving military families is a challenge and an opportunity

Justice for Military Families

When I graduated from law school and moved with my family to another state, I had very little hope of finding a community that could relate to both the challenges of military life and the demands new attorneys face. Needless to say, I was overjoyed to discover that the newly established Military Spouse JD Network (MSJDN) was working to create the very community I needed. Five years and three Permanent Change of Stations (PCS) later, MSJDN has been an invaluable tool for advice, resources, and support for me and many other military spouse attorneys.

Frequent relocations make it difficult for military spouses like myself to find steady, meaningful work in the legal profession. Fortunately, because of MSJDN and their Justice for Military Families (JMF) committee, I have been able to do the very thing I set out to accomplish when I began law school eight years ago – to help others.

The JMF committee is the pro bono component of the MSJDN Foundation and is a nationwide program dedicated to providing free and reduced fee legal assistance to military families. JMF has partnered with Tragedy Assistance for Survivors (TAPS), an organization that supports the families of fallen service members, also known as Gold Star families.

This is why I celebrate pro bono; to encourage my fellow attorneys to reach out to those in need

In my volunteer role as the Lead Intake Coordinator with JMF, I receive cases from TAPS caseworkers for family members facing a variety of legal issues. Each family and case is different, but I love the challenge of searching our world-wide network of MSJDN members, their contacts, and various other resources in order to find the one attorney who will take a pro bono case to assist a Gold Star family.  It is incredibly rewarding to write an email to a TAPS caseworker detailing the information for the attorney I’ve found for the client.

As a volunteer for the last year and a half, I have placed about half of the cases I have received from TAPS. A couple of these cases stick out in my mind: the property dispute between a Gold Star mother and her sibling; a Gold Star sister who needed to access her brother’s important paperwork after his passing. Several others involved a Gold Star family member’s need for assistance with estate and probate issues. The cases I will never forget are those I cannot place and have to close. It is very difficult for me to end a search, as I want to be able to place every single case that comes across my email. As a reasonable person, I understand that this is not possible, but I often wonder if these family members were able to find an attorney to assist them in their time of need.

This is why I celebrate pro bono; to encourage my fellow attorneys to reach out to those in need, and to selfishly hope that their participation will mean more Gold Star families will find appropriate assistance. JMF has grown significantly since it began two years ago. Our committee members have recently started drafting and compiling an online library of statutory compilations. This library will be a readily accessible legal resource of accurate and concise information for the military community. We are actively seeking contributions from our own members, the wider legal community, and law school students for this project.

We have widened our group of attorney resources every time we successfully place a case. We have fostered relationships with pre-existing programs and accessed lists of attorneys specializing in veteran and military affairs willing to help. And we have recently embarked in a partnership with a major law firm in hopes of placing more cases.

This does not dilute our need for individual volunteer attorneys willing to help a family member who has lost a child, a spouse, a sibling, or a parent.  As law students and attorneys, we are all well aware that accessing legal services can be a daunting and overwhelming experience for a layperson, under the best of circumstances. This task is immeasurably more difficult when one has experienced the unimaginable loss of a loved one.  Adding to this burden is the fact that many Gold Star families are searching for assistance where their service member resided, locations which are often distant and unfamiliar to family members.

As my spouse’s career comes to a close over the next several years and I begin to embark on a more “traditional” legal career, I will continue serving the deserving families of our fallen service members. I am constantly motivated to promote their stories and their sacrifices far and wide among our legal community, spurring others to join the important work of JMF and MSJDN.

If you would also like to contribute to this important work by helping Gold Star family members, please join us. Learn more about the Military Spouse JD Network at and contact the Justice for Military Program at

Tricia Petek Tricia Patten Petek is a native of Montana and a graduate of the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana. A volunteer with the Justice for Military Families team since June 2015, she previously practiced family law in Kansas and Missouri, and interned with Montana Legal Services during law school. She is a proud Air Force spouse and is looking forward to traveling Europe after a recent move to Germany.