During my last semester as a law student, I enrolled as a student-attorney in the Bob Parsons Veterans Advocacy Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
For five months, I had the privilege of representing veterans in Baltimore in need of legal assistance. I come from a family whose members have proudly served in our armed forces. Choosing a law clinic that specializes in veterans’ legal issues took little deliberation.
When I enrolled in the clinic I did not anticipate just how tall an order this opportunity would be. Through my routine consumption of the monotonous media cycle I was vaguely aware of veterans issues — post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and extreme amputations being the most common headlines. In my naivete, I framed these as medical issues and failed to recognize the multifaceted legal issues raised by these disabilities.
My experience in the clinic opened my eyes to the medical and legal hardships of disabled veterans. While my regular clinic casework and projects have given me a clearer perspective, two distinct experiences crystalized how much veterans need legal assistance.
I had the unique opportunity to participate in a judicial conference in March sponsored by The University of Baltimore School of Law and The Judicial Institute of Maryland, wherein legal and medical experts trained judges from across the country on veterans’ issues. The conference, “Veteran’s Needs: The Current State of Veterans in Our Court System,” explored the transition from military to civilian life and the challenges faced by veterans who find themselves involved with the criminal justice system.
Dr. David Williamson, a medical director for the Traumatic Brain Injury Program at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, explained how explosions from war can increase the chance of what he called polytrauma: multiple and interwoven illnesses stemming from TBI, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders, depression, and substance abuse.
The conference also focused on the Veterans Treatment Court model. Veterans Treatment Courts rely on medical benefits provided by the Veterans Health Administration, the treatment branch of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. For eligible veterans, federal treatment programs provided by the VHA are free and do not require funding by state or local governments.
While the overall number of Veterans Treatment Courts is growing nationally, there is only one such court in Maryland, presided over by the Honorable Patricia Lewis in Prince George’s County. Maryland state Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-23) provided details on the Task Force on Military Service Members, Veterans, and the Courts, which was established in 2012 by the General Assembly. The task force submitted a report to the General Assembly outlining the steps necessary for Maryland to establish its own Veterans Treatment Court. The report is available on the Maryland State Bar Association website.
After participating in the conference, I realized that a fully functioning Veterans Treatment Court in Baltimore will not be established before I graduate this month. However, I will graduate knowing I helped judges become more knowledgeable about veterans burdened with a diminished state of health and the resources that are available to treat them and keep them out of the criminal justice system.
The second experience that emphasized how much veterans need legal assistance was when I counseled clients at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training. For many veterans, disability compensation benefits earned through military service are just as important as obtaining medical treatment. Through my work in the clinic I have witnessed the bureaucracy at the Veterans Benefits Administration. Veterans often attempt to navigate the maze of VA regulations and standardized forms on their own, which can be a confusing and overwhelming process. The system was designed to be non-adversarial, but in reality veterans without advocates are at a disadvantage when it comes to claiming benefits. My role as a clinic student-attorney was to help veterans obtain the benefits they earned in service.
The clinic participated in a community outreach projects to assist homeless veterans with their disability claims. On April 8, under the supervision of Hugh McClean, director of the Parsons clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, the clinic provided legal advice to a dozen veterans at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training in Baltimore. We provided a briefing to veterans filing claims or appealing decisions as well as training on how to request upgrades of unfavorable discharge characterizations. It was during my time at MCVET that I observed firsthand the positive impact the clinic has on addressing veterans’ legal needs.
According to McClean, there are more than 40 law school clinics in the U.S. that specialize in veterans law. The clinics provide pro bono legal services to veterans who are represented by students admitted to practice law under state student-practice rules. What distinguishes these clinics from other veterans service organizations is the amount of time students dedicate to conducting research and advocating for their clients. Taking on the most complex cases, students are able to examine every issue and provide comprehensive advice to veterans.
With the influx of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans need legal assistance now more than ever. While the law school clinic model is not the only means of providing these services, it certainly is an effective one.
Kellye Beathea is a graduating third-year student attending University of Baltimore School of Law.