Around Veterans Day, many of us reflect on the honor and sacrifice that our country's veterans have made. It is also an excellent time for attorneys to honor that service and sacrifice by getting involved with providing pro bono legal services to military and veteran clients.
Every year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs identifies the top unmet needs of veterans facing housing insecurity. Nearly every one of those unmet needs is legal in nature, but most veterans who cannot afford legal assistance end up falling into the justice gap.
We can help close that gap. You do not need to be in the military or be a veteran to participate in these opportunities, just willing to give of your time and professional skills. Attorney allies who are not affiliated with the military can provide some of the most impactful legal services to military and veteran clients.
Below is an overview of military and veteran pro bono opportunities and how to get involved.
Pro Bono Opportunities
One of the unique components of providing pro bono legal services to military and veteran clients is the broad range of matters where a volunteer attorney can make a big difference: Some involve litigation while others are more transactional.
A common misconception is that the majority of military and veteran pro bono opportunities are related to assistance with claims with the VA or other military benefits, and that pro bono assistance is only limited to those topics. While helping veterans access the benefits they have earned is important, there is also tremendous need for assistance in other practice areas.
Opportunities can range from state and federal veterans benefits, applications for discharge upgrades, consumer protection, family law, housing and landlord/tenant law, consumer debt, bankruptcies, public housing, estate planning, Social Security and other benefits, elder law, immigration, and other state law-related issues.
For example, a pro bono attorney may be able to use their family law expertise to find opportunities to assist veterans who need divorces, some of which involve child custody issues. Pro bono representation in these instances typically involves assisting the veteran with filing for divorce, accompanying the veteran to hearings, helping develop a parenting plan, and ensuring that appropriate spousal and child support is awarded.
There are also opportunities to assist veterans with nonhonorable discharges based on conduct attributable to health conditions — such as traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder — from combat-related exposure or military sexual trauma.
These volunteer opportunities typically involve helping the veteran draft and submit a discharge upgrade petition to the appropriate board of correction or discharge review board, and can help remove the stigma associated with receiving a nonhonorable discharge, and provide deserving veterans with access to earned benefits.
Providing pro bono services does not necessarily require taking a case for full representation. Counseling and advice, brief services or limited assistance representation can also be quite effective in removing legal barriers veterans may face.
These limited scope representation matters may be available through a range of events, including the following.
Stand-downs are day-long or multiday events where a variety of services are made available to veterans in a single location, typically on a walk-in basis. In addition to legal services, the services may include health care, dental care, housing, employment, substance abuse treatment or counseling, clothing, shower facilities, barbers and other essential services.
Volunteer attorneys providing legal services at stand-downs are typically providing one-time, limited-scope representation on issues that veterans present the day of the stand-down without an expectation of follow-up or full representation, similar to many lawyer-of-the-day type programs often hosted in courthouses. Attorneys can volunteer in their area of expertise or even by screening veterans seeking legal services.
One-time clinics are another great way for attorneys to provide limited-scope pro bono services. They are typically sponsored by local legal aid organizations serving veterans and staffed by volunteer attorneys with mentors and experts in the subject matter present. These clinics typically last one day and services are provided directly to clients on the day of the clinic without an expectation of follow-up or full representation.
For example, Pine Tree Legal Services in Maine provides a legal clinic for veterans and their spouses to receive simple wills and powers of attorney through its Wills for Heroes program in locations throughout Maine.
Metroplex Veterans Legal Services has also provided virtual expungement and orders of nondisclosure clinics in counties throughout Texas.
Mentorship and Training
Those interested in providing volunteer legal services may also be able to provide mentorship and training in their area of expertise, so others have the foundation to provide services directly to military and veteran clients. This is a unique way for those who are unable to provide direct representation to continue to provide volunteer legal services.
A sometimes overlooked opportunity for volunteer attorneys is to provide corporate-related legal services to a nonprofit veteran organization. This can be in the form of assisting with incorporation or entity formation, risk management, operational policies, lease negotiations, assisting with employment-related issues, or other legal matters related to the nonprofit's operation, or otherwise providing corporate assistance.
The first step to finding opportunities to get involved is to look for a reputable nonprofit or other legal aid program in your community that already provides legal aid to veterans, service members or their families, if there is one.
These organizations devote resources to providing their volunteers with the following key benefits.
Veteran legal aid providers will typically screen cases to ensure the client qualifies for pro bono legal services, assess the merits of the matter that the client wishes to have resolved, and provide a screening and placement memo. All of these tools will assist the volunteer attorney in avoiding conflicts and providing pro bono legal services to a military or veteran client.
Training and Mentorship
Volunteer attorneys will typically be provided with training on military and veterans culture and how to meet the unique legal needs of veterans and their families. These legal aid programs will also typically provide experienced staff attorneys as mentors to volunteer attorneys.
Accepting a referral from a veterans legal aid provider is also beneficial if additional or new legal problems arise that are outside the scope of services the volunteer attorney has agreed to provide. The veteran can be directed back to the legal aid organization, which can assist them in securing other resources or assistance.
Attorneys should consider honoring veterans by providing pro bono legal services to military and veteran clients. There are many great organizations with which attorneys can volunteer. Volunteering your time and legal skills, in any capacity that you are comfortable, will make a lasting positive impact on a well-deserving group of individuals.