A small army of lawyers will deploy this fall to take on a special mission: Help veterans tackle the legal problems associated with access to health care, jobs and housing, and family problems.
Equal Justice Works—a Washington nonprofit that financially supports public-interest law jobs—has announced a Veterans Legal Corps, believed the largest single effort to connect pro bono lawyers with veterans across the county.
The program will send 36 attorneys into two-year posts at legal aid providers in different states, where they will represent veterans and help their host organizations serve veterans and their legal challenges. Additionally, the program will send 200 law students into veteran-focused public-interest summer jobs during the next three years.
The corps is being financed through $1.4 million per year from AmeriCorps and an additional $1 million annually from Equal Justice Works and the legal aid organizations for which the fellows will work. The project grew out of a smaller pilot project that Equal Justice Works launched in 2010, said Kerry O’Brien, director of federal programs and strategic initiatives. At the time, it paid for 10 lawyers working on behalf of veterans full-time for two years.
“It was a success in the sense that lawyers really can make a difference,” O’Brien said. “At the same time, it showed us that the need is tremendous. There is a significant number of veterans living in poverty with complex legal problems. We felt like an expansion of the program was in order.”
The fellows will focus on matters involving the Veterans Administration, such as securing mental health and service-related disability treatment, O’Brien said. They also will handle matters including child support disputes, she said. While existing organizations help veterans find jobs or homes, far fewer legal resources are available, O’Brien said.
The fellows are expected to help build trust and ties between their host legal aid organizations and local veterans. Experience has shown that low-income veterans are not seeking legal assistance in sizable numbers, O’Brien added.
Equal Justice Works is already accepting applications for the corps, and the first group of fellows is slated to start in September. They will receive training from Equal Justice Works in addition to supervision from the local groups to which they are deployed.