Member Groups

The Challenge
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Law

April 2012, vol. 22, no. 3

The Veterans Legal Support Center & Clinic—Helping the nation’s veterans

Brian Clauss, Co-Executive Director of the Veterans Legal Support Center & Clinic (“VLSC”) at The John Marshall Law School, Chicago, Illinois, is a former prosecutor, a labor arbitrator, and a mediator. At an airport in Germany in 2005, Clauss met a veteran headed home to deal with family issues. In the ensuing conversation, Clauss also learned that many veterans were being terminated from their employment while deployed in service of their country. Clauss gave the veteran his card; while Clauss could not represent the veteran, he promised to help him find legal representation. Back in Chicago, Clauss organized a seminar in March of 2006, on deployment and redeployment issues. The seminar and other work on veterans’ issues brought Clauss to the attention of the Illinois State Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Military Affairs.

Meanwhile, three law students at The John Marshall Law School, First Lieutenant Nick Henry, who served two tours in Iraq, First Lieutenant Ryan Coward, committed to the Army JAG Corps, and Michael Barnicle, also committed to the Army JAG corps, recognized that veterans across the nation were having problems obtaining benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Then Student Bar Association President Michael Abramson suggested an ABA Law Student Division Resolution encouraging more clinical programs at law Schools focused on legal assistance to active military personnel. Henry, Coward, and Barnicle recognized, however, that active military personnel can receive some assistance from the JAG Corps, and sought to create a clinical program addressing issues faced by veterans. The students approached the Standing Committee on Military Affairs for guidance on how to best help veterans. Aware of Clauss’ work, the Standing Committee on Military Affairs referred the students to him.

In search of help in creating a clinical setting to provide assistance to veterans, Henry, Coward, and Barnicle approached Clauss and Professor Joseph Butler. Butler was Assistant Director at The John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Clinic.  In that capacity, he supervised students who litigated cases, inter alia, before the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Illinois Human Rights Commission. Together, the group developed the principles for a clinical program to help veterans. “In addition to managing theoretical legal problems presented by veteran status, the Clinical Program [would emphasize] the practical aspects of handling Veteran Benefits Administration claims from the initial factual intake to the technical aspects of representation at the appellate level.  The Veterans Clinical Program [would afford] law students the exciting opportunity to work in-person with veterans while under the direct supervision of licensed clinical attorneys and professors.”  In the spring of 2007, The John Marshall faculty and Board of Trustees approved the establishment of the VLSC at The John Marshall Law School, to serve the legal needs of veterans pursuing Veteran Benefits Administration claims. In January of 2008, the VLSC officially opened its doors to veterans in the Chicago metropolitan area, with operation during its first year funded by a $100,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. To accomplish its mission, the VLSC trains students and attorneys throughout the State of Illinois through Continuing Legal Education programs and Veteran Advocacy training.

With Clauss and Butler acting as Co-Executive Directors, the VLSC has received national recognition for its work with veterans. The clinic is run by staff attorneys, and students under the supervision of staff attorneys, and is further supported by approximately 250 volunteer attorneys at Chicago law firms trained to do pro bono work for veterans. As part of their training, these volunteer attorneys attend a seminar at the clinic, and some also make the time to tour a military base. For those not faint of heart, Clauss explains that the VLSC has done training at military installations that include a ride on a C-130 training mission. The plane flies at low altitude with the doors open, a very, very cool experience, according to Clauss.

The VLSC receives 1,000 requests for intake every year, with the requests spanning diverse issues and areas of law. A student, such as Jesse Taylor who has several family members in the military and wants to be able to help in some way, will answer the phone and provide the veteran with a clear understanding as to the issues the clinic can help with. The student will prepare a memorandum and scan all documents the veteran provides for the file that is generated. The file is then transmitted to another student such as Erica Hammer, who will do all the legal research on the issues presented. The veteran’s case may be kept in-house, with the students and supervising staff attorneys providing representation, or may be referred to the network of 250 attorneys at various law firms. Of the 1,000 requests for assistance, the VLSC will take about 300 cases, with the determination to represent a veteran being made on a case-by-case basis, keeping in mind the goal of the VLSC to develop analytical skills in the students who volunteer at the clinic and prepare them for their careers in the law. The VLSC also works in partnership with other social service agencies. This allows the VLSC to assist veterans in getting their additional needs, whether related to their legal claims or circumstances faced in their day to day lives, met.

The VLSC has also had an impact on the treatment of veterans facing criminal charges in Cook County. Created in January of 2008, the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court Program, presided over by Judge Robert Russell with integral support from veterans acting as mentors, has successfully diverted veterans from the criminal court system into treatment programs they need. The Circuit Court of Cook County approached Clauss and the VLSC in an effort to replicate the Buffalo program, the first of its kind in the nation, in Cook County. In the spring of 2009, the Cook County Veterans Court was created to provide help to veterans in the criminal court system by addressing the underlying issues that led to the veterans’ encounter with the law. As an example, the Veterans Court connects veterans with federal and state veteran affairs departments, social services agencies and legal aid agencies that provide services to the veterans. Clauss reports that the recidivism rate for veterans who enter the Cook County Veterans Court is less than 10 percent. Clauss notes that veterans respond well to structured programs that seek to help them with run-ins with the law, and would like to see veterans court programs expanded to misdemeanors. He notes further that a problem for veterans is not recognizing the root causes that lead to troublesome behaviors upon their return from active duty. On June 12, 2010, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed into law House Bill 5214, the Military Veterans and Servicemembers Court Treatment Act. The law gives the chief judge of a judicial circuit the discretion to establish a Veterans and Servicemembers Court Program for veterans facing criminal proceedings for non-violent crimes who may have mental health or substance abuse issues. Veterans enrolled in such a program receive mental health and substance abuse screenings; submit to treatment; and, upon successful completion of program, may have their charges dismissed. The VLSC was well represented at the signing of the bill, with Clauss and Butler looking on as the Governor signed the bill.

So what does the future hold for the VLSC? Foremost is to continue to provide an excellent educational experience for the students who volunteer at the clinic, while introducing them to the fine art of networking. Clauss notes that in addition to working with the staff attorneys in the clinic, students have the opportunity to work with the volunteer pro bono attorneys in law firm settings. Jesse Taylor and Erica Hammer were enthusiastic about their experience at the VLSC and the opportunity to help veterans in need, and exuded confidence in the legal and networking abilities they have gained as law students. Taylor explained that his experience at the VLSC has enhanced his client interviewing and counseling skills. Further, his experience at the clinic has translated over and been of benefit to him in other legal environments. Clauss reports proudly that every single graduate of the clinical program is employed in the law, no small feat in today’s legal market.

The VLSC will also continue to do community outreach to at-risk veterans, through alliances with social service agencies, other legal aid agencies, and veteran affair departments, and through the use of social networks. Clauss notes that outreach is critical as there is a huge psychological barrier among veterans to admit that they have a problem in the first instance. Clauss also points to the need to investigate the long term health issues of female veterans, noting, in particular, that female veterans are two times more likely to suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome than male veterans. There is also a need to get more help to veterans living in rural communities. Clauss states it is vitally important to fund social assistance and relief programs for veterans in these communities. Lastly, Clauss points to the need for legislation that would take into consideration the impact of traumatic brain injury in cases of domestic violence, and legislation enacting a formula for the differential pay between members of the National Guard and members of other branches of the armed forces. This ambitious program is in addition, of course, to expanding the court programs to include misdemeanors, and expanding the network of attorneys willing to help veterans on a pro bono basis. Volunteer attorneys are key to the VLSC’s ability to handle the increasing demand for assistance from veterans. Clauss’ contagious enthusiasm rivals that of the clinical students.

Veterans looking for assistance can contact the VLSC by calling (312) 360-2656 or sending an email to Attorneys can also support this endeavor by undergoing training with the VLSC and volunteering to assist the VLSC through pro bono representation of veterans.