James Butler John Disney/Daily Report

The University of Georgia School of Law is getting a new legal clinic to help veterans who’ve filed claims for disability benefits with the gridlocked U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, thanks to gifts from plaintiffs lawyer James Butler Jr. and four other Columbus lawyers.

The clinic is scheduled to start taking clients next summer, after fielding applications for a clinic director in the fall and giving that person time to get things set up.

Butler, of Butler Wooten & Peak, said he made the lead gift in memory of his father, Lt. Cmdr. James Butler Sr., who flew fighter planes in the U.S. Navy in World War II and died last year. “Dad always taught us that anything worth doing was worth doing right,” Butler said.

“This clinic provides two useful services,” Butler said. “It helps veterans, which is pretty dear to my heart, and it also gives law students clinical training, which is something Joel and I have been preaching to UGA Law School for over 20 years.”

Butler was referring to Joel Wooten, his law partner for about 30 years, who also contributed to the new veterans’ clinic. The Columbus natives are both “double dawgs,” with undergraduate and law degrees from UGA.

Butler, who earned his JD in 1977, said that, when he and Wooten were in law school, there wasn’t much in the way of hands-on clinical training—and “now UGA Law has got to be one of the top in the nation in clinics.” The Veterans Legal Services Clinic is the seventh for UGA Law, which has legal clinics focused on appellate litigation, mediation, business law, community health, family violence and survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

He declined to say how much he was contributing for the new veterans clinic, and UGA Law said it was the school’s policy not to disclose gift amounts. Butler has won numerous multimillion-dollar judgments over his career, including a $105 million verdict in Moseley v. GM in 1993 and a $454 million verdict in Six Flags v. Time Warner, collected in full in 2003.

Butler is a longtime supporter of UGA. He’s endowed the James E. Butler Scholarship for public service at the law school—named for his father, himself and his son, James “Jeb” Butler III, who earned his JD from UGA in 2008—and made other significant donations. In 2006, Butler, an avid fisherman, gave $1 million to UGA’s Institute of Ecology to endow research fellowships for its graduate students.

The other UGA Law alumni in Columbus making gifts are G. Sanders Griffith III, who is the general counsel of TSYS and went to law school with Butler and Wooten, and Ken Henson Jr., whose father gave Butler his first law job in 1977. Another Columbus lawyer, Pete Robinson, who heads the lobbying practice at Troutman Sanders, also contributed, even though he went to law school at Mercer University. Robinson, like the others, is on the Board of Visitors for UGA’s law school.

The clinic funding will also provide a $5,000 annual scholarship match for two veterans enrolled at UGA Law that will be paired with “match” money from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

UGA Law’s dean, Bo Rutledge, said that, in addition to helping veterans directly, the goal is for the Veterans Legal Services Clinic to be a resource for lawyers all over the state who take on veterans’ benefits cases pro bono, since these are specialized cases with their own arcane administrative procedures.

The VA has been widely criticized for years for the backlog of benefits claims, which totaled 352,821 as of July 29.

If the department denies a claim, it takes on average more than four years for the appeal to work its way through the cumbersome and labyrinthine adjudication process. It’s worth appealing, since the Board of Veterans Appeals upholds only 19 percent of denials from the VA’s regional offices, reversing another 31 percent and remanding 46 back to the VA regional office, according to VA data.

Prompted by the plight of veterans stuck in limbo for years trying to get their claims decided, King & Spalding partner John Chandler, working with Williams Connolly partner Stephen Raber, sued the VA last year over the bogged down appeals process. They filed mandamus petitions for 17 veterans and their survivors with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims that asked it to declare the lengthy delays unconstitutional because they violates the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause—and to order the VA to expedite appeals for veterans who’ve had their claims denied.

Chandler said that litigation is still pending.

Despite the 352,821 currently backlogged claims, the Veterans Benefits Administration reported adding more than a million veterans to its rolls over the past four years and delivering more than $63.5 billion in compensation and pension benefits to 4.5 million veterans in fiscal 2015.

A Unique Effort

The State Bar of Georgia and other Georgia law schools have set up programs to provide veterans with pro bono legal help, but Rutledge said the new UGA clinic serves an unmet need, since it is focusing solely on helping veterans with benefits claims. “What makes our clinic distinctive is we will have a dedicated fulltime in-house person at the law school,” he added.

The State Bar of Georgia started its Military Legal Assistance Program several years ago to connect volunteer lawyers with vets seeking legal assistance on issues ranging from family law to evictions. Georgia State University College of Law and Emory University Law School both have legal clinics to assist veterans, but the GSU clinic partners with the State Bar program to offer general legal services from pro bono lawyers, assisted by GSU law students. The Emory clinic, which started in 2013, focuses on helping vets with benefits claims, but it’s in Atlanta.

The UGA clinic will offer assistance to veterans outside Atlanta when it opens its doors next year in Athens.

In addition to offering law students the opportunity to work directly with clients under the supervision of a faculty member, the clinic can assist lawyers who take veterans benefits cases pro bono, Rutledge said.

“It’s a field where there was a demonstrated need, but not necessarily the capacity in the private bar to meet that need,” he said