In a year when theDepartment of Veterans Affairs has repeatedly come under fire for problems ranging from deadly delays in medical appointments to its hefty backlog of benefit claims, the need for legal assistance for veterans has often taken a lower priority.
But that's about to change.
Recent efforts to help veterans obtain benefits or gain access to other resources are underway at law schools, bar associations, community groups and even the VA itself.
"I think the sheer number of claims, and the resources that are available to process them, necessitate more lawyering in this area," said Hugh McClean, director of the new Bob Parsons Veterans Advocacy Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "There's just a tremendous need for veterans' assistance right now."
Four law students supervised by McClean, a veteran of the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps and a former Air Force law professor, will work about 20 hours each week handling cases while also learning through a weekly seminar and reading assignments, he said. In the spring, the number of students in the clinic will likely increase to six.
There are only about 30 such veterans clinics at law schools across the country, McClean said. Pushing for more, the American Bar Association voted at its annual meeting Aug. 11 to urge law schools to create veterans' clinics or, if that's not possible, to serve veterans' needs through an existing clinic.
At UB Law, the clinic's initial focus will be on cases in which veterans need legal help to access their service-connected disability benefits and on "discharge upgrade" cases. The two are often intertwined, McClean said, since a veteran who received a dishonorable discharge may be prevented from accessing benefits.
"As veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, more veterans are filing claims than they've done in previous wars, so there's a real need to a have a clinic like this in the community," McClean said.
Eventually, McClean hopes to expand the clinic's impact by collaborating with medical and other academic institutions in the state to create a "health law" program.
He'd also like to see the students get involved in other projects, such as the effort to launch a veterans' treatment court program or docket in Baltimore. This type of court focuses on veterans with substance abuse issues or post-traumatic stress disorder, and emphasizes rehabilitation over jail time.
A task force created by the General Assembly in 2012 recommended creation of a veterans' court, and just this year, the Prince George's County Circuit Court received approval to establish one in Prince George's County.
Maryland State Bar Association President Debra Schubert also named veterans' courts as one of her top priorities earlier this year. While she was still president-elect, Schubert established the MSBA's Special Committee on Veterans Courts, which recently held its first meeting, she said.
"It's an issue that's ripe, that should be addressed," she said. "We owe it to our men and women who have served this country to do more to help them."
Meanwhile, Jennifer Larrabee, deputy director of the nonprofit Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland — the pro bono arm of the MSBA — said she's seen an increase in attorneys pursuing this kind of work since the widespread problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs surfaced.
"I think once people hear about and learn about the process, how complex and lengthy it can be, a lot of pro bono attorneys have stepped forward because of that," she said.
To increase the number of attorneys serving veterans, the Pro Bono Resource Center, in partnership with a few other groups, offers several free training sessions each year for attorneys who make a commitment to use their training pro bono.