ATHENS — After six years of planning, the University of Georgia School of Law has opened a Veterans Legal Clinic that will provide a service they feel is sorely needed: free legal assistance for veterans in Georgia.
The clinic helps veterans navigate a complex system as they file claims for pensions and compensation, often for service-related disabilities. According to law professor Alex Scherr, after the clinic opened on May 29, it received a lot of interest from the community. The clinic, which currently includes three law students and Scherr, has already looked into about 20 cases, and it is accepting cases from veterans all across the state.
In the summer term, three students were selected to participate in the clinical course, which provides class credit as well as an opportunity to gain practical legal experience. Tyler Mathis and Chase Keith, entering their second year of law school, and Megan McDonough, entering her third year, spend as many as 40 hours each in the clinic every week interviewing veterans and building their cases.
For Keith and McDonough, the clinic hits a personal note. Keith served in the Army for eight years before starting law school, and McDonough participates in UGA’s ROTC and will commission into the Air Force as part of the Judge Advocate General’s, or JAG, Corps.
“Since I got out (from the Army), I knew I always wanted to stay connected to the veteran community somehow. And when I saw that the clinic was starting, I knew that this would be a great way to not only keep that connection with the community, but also to be able to do some good for the community,” Keith commented.
In the fall, the clinic will expand to include seven students as well as a postgraduate law fellow who can help with supervising cases. Its primary focus for its first few years will center on benefits from Veterans Affairs, such as pensions and compensation linked to service-connected disabilities.
“It was clear once we started talking to people that the community surrounding Athens and the state as a whole strongly encouraged us to take these tasks on,” said Scherr, who has directed civil clinics at UGA since 1996.
Norman Zoller, the former director of the Military Legal Assistance Program of the Georgia Bar, has encouraged law schools across Georgia to begin these types of clinics. The Georgia Bar's program connects veterans to Georgia lawyers willing to assist them for free or a reduced cost, and Zoller believes UGA's clinic will be a great complement to their work.
“I think it’s a very positive step. I commend them for doing it,” said Zoller, who served in the Army for 22 years.
That program’s current director, Christopher Pitts, commented, “With claims’ processing times as they are, some veterans can wait more than five years before receiving a decision. This new clinic will help the program connect more veterans with attorneys in order to meet their legal needs.”
While the clinic will not handle cases involving other civil legal needs, like problems with housing or family issues, Scherr believes the clinic can offer educational resources and use its networks to refer such clients to other sources.
As the caseload grows, Scherr says the clinic will narrow its focus to Athens and 15 surrounding counties, most of which are heavily rural. Veterans from these counties often face obstacles in transportation and technology, which makes finding and staying connected with a lawyer difficult. Statistics show about 50,000 veterans live in those 15 counties, out of more than 690,000 veterans in Georgia.
Another challenge, according to Scherr, comes with working with memories and records that are decades old.
“Right now, if I was looking at the pool of cases we have, the average length of time since the occurrence of events during the military is two or three decades. So what that means is you’re often digging back deep into people’s memories, into records that may or may not exist,” he explained.
While students will always be under the supervision of Scherr or an attorney, they’ll still be involved in different aspects of every case, Scherr said. Students will often have to hunt down these hard-to-find records in order to build clients’ cases.
“I am really interested in working with students who want to use the clinical experience as a way of developing their identities as lawyers, their professional identities,” Scherr said. “We are not just creating a law practice that serves veterans. We are creating a clinical legal education course.”
As a student entering her last year of law school, McDonough echoed Scherr’s thoughts, saying, “You can only learn so much about being a lawyer in the classroom.”
Going into their second month, Scherr is already looking years ahead into how the clinic will expand, such as a collaboration with UGA’s School of Psychology in order to help them “understand the psychological dimensions of what our clients will be facing,” he said.
Since UGA’s student body also includes many veterans, he hopes they will also work with the clinic, helping with outreach and community presentations as well as some clerical aspects.
Scherr does expect some challenges, especially in navigating the VA’s complex bureaucratic system. When the clinic begins its outreach into the communities surrounding Athens, Scherr recognizes that some communities may be very hard to reach, such as the homeless community, which he has worked with in the past.
However, he expressed confidence in the abilities and commitment of the students who have joined the clinic.
“I think it’s safe to say most students put at least as much as they need to, if not more, into the clinic,” Scherr said. “The cases are compelling. The work is very intense. They love to do it.”
Scherr pairs the students’ time working on cases with regular meetings that discuss the clients’ issues and how they can navigate the law to solve them.
As the students look forward to their own careers in law, the clinic not only allows them to gain practical experience but also exposes them to the issues veterans face in Georgia.
“I guess my greatest experience so far would be gaining a greater understanding of veterans and what they go through,” said Mathis. “And with that understanding, I think it would motivate me to help veterans after law school, as I may not have thought about their need otherwise.”
As Keith put it, “We’re learning every day.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Those seeking help from the Veterans Legal Clinic can contact it at 706-542-6439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.