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How – and why – a law school veterans clinic works

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M-Vets

At the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, student advisors are developing practical legal skills through a live-client clinic providing pro bono legal services to veterans, servicemembers, and their families. The Mason Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic (M-VETS) represents clients in both civil matters, including negotiation and litigation of consumer protection, family law, landlord-tenant, and contract matters, and military law and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs matters, including representation before Medical and Physical Evaluation Boards, appeals of the denial of VA disability compensation claims, requests for increased ratings decisions, and discharge upgrade applications.

Located a few miles from the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., M-VETS was founded shortly after 9/11 when several George Mason law students were mobilized from the classroom to the battlefield.  When one student was deployed to Iraq, he sought the assistance of the law school after his wife’s landlord threatened to evict her from their residence.  The law school secured legal counsel from a George Mason graduate who favorably resolved the matter.

As student advisers, we act as the lead on the case, reporting to our supervising attorney in the same way an associate would do with a partner in a law firm.

In 2004, the clinic was formally established within the law school and dedicated to the mission of providing active-duty members of the armed forces, their families and Veterans with free legal representation in matters of clear injustice or in which they could not retain legal counsel without undue hardship.  As the first veterans clinical program in the United States, M-VETS served as the model for Veterans and military clinics in law schools across the country.  Like many law school clinics, M-VETS provides clients with access to free legal services, but is unique in the sense that it offers representation in areas of both military/VA matters and civil matters.

Unique issues in military law and representing servicemembers

On the military/VA side of the clinic, students are exposed to a highly specialized area of law that they might not otherwise have a chance to learn about during law school. Studying and researching military law opens students up to a wide range of career paths and makes them very marketable in the military and government sectors as well as in private practice. In addition, students are exposed to and learn about the military and Veteran cultures and are provided many opportunities to give back to both communities through their experience in M-VETS and community outreach programs.

Addressing legal issues in military law in a clinical setting is challenging for many reasons, including the arduous task of combing through voluminous medical records to condense those records into a concise argument.  Many times in law school we are given a brief fact pattern and clear statement of the law and are evaluated on how well we analyze the two – in real world practice, particularly on the military law side, the law and facts are not so black and white. For example, when you are helping a veteran with a discharge upgrade, he or she may have a life-time of facts and special situations that explain why they deserve a different discharge classification. This presents a challenging task as a student adviser of determining how to articulate those facts in line with the military rubric and effectively advocate in favor of your client.

Advising servicemembers in civil matters also presents a different set of challenges. On top of determining the legal issues and rules applicable to a particular case, there are often statutory exceptions, exemptions, and additional avenues for relief that may apply to servicemembers. Similar to the military law side of the clinic, this helps us develop a unique perspective on civil law. As we go out into practice, not all of our fellow first-year associates will think to check the state’s statute for particular exceptions or extensions for a servicemember which might make the difference between a client having a case or not.

Life in a clinic

The day-to-day operations of M-VETS are similar to that of a law firm.  We have a weekly staff meeting and class where we cover legal education and training, administrative matters, client in-takes and case rounds.   As student advisers, we act as the lead on the case, reporting to our supervising attorney in the same way an associate would do with a partner in a law firm.

Potential clients contact the clinic through our website.  The supervising attorneys prescreen applications and then assign each matter to a student adviser. From there, the student adviser conducts an initial interview and researches the applicant’s matter. Once our assessment is complete, we work with the supervising attorney to determine if the clinic can effectively assist the applicant. If the clinic is unable to assist with an applicant’s legal matter, we refer the applicant to other legal resources.  If the applicant is accepted, we execute a Letter of Engagement (LOE) detailing the scope of services for the representation.

Why clinics?

Rebecca Eubank: The best part of taking part in a clinic is the practical experience you gain and the opportunity to work directly with veterans, servicemembers and their dependents.  A clinic experience reflects life in a real law practice where you may or may not know much about a specific area of law before you’re assigned to a case. In a class, you might sit there for a semester pouring through property law and trying to commit as much of it as you can to memory. After assisting a veteran in one landlord tenant matter, you’ll probably remember the steps required for a landlord to evict a tenant much better when the bar exam rolls around.

Michael West: M-VETS gives us the opportunity to develop our law practice skills by providing us with a hands-on educational experience and the opportunity to gain real-world legal experience as if we worked in a real law firm.   The director and staff attorney give us leeway in how we want to operate our clinic.  The experience has been great thus far.   The learning curve was steep at first, but once we were over the hump, it has become an extremely satisfying experience.

Rebecca Eubank and Michael West Rebecca Eubank is a third-year law student at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. Prior to and continuing through two years of law school, Eubank worked for Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, serving on his Committee on Finance staff where she worked on international trade policy.Michael West is a rising 4L. Prior to attending law school, Mr. West worked as a Student Associate, Summer Associate, Project Manager, and Electrical Engineer.