There’s a small but growing legal community in the U.S. that’s helping veterans with their benefits claims while working to improve the VA system. And their work continues even as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to name a new VA Secretary to “make the VA great again,” as promised during his campaign.
Veteran advocacy clinics help veterans with legal problems. The law school clinics come in many sizes and with many different missions.
“At Stetson Veterans Advocacy Clinic, we practice mostly disability benefits and help some veterans with discharge upgrades,” said Stacey-Rae Simcox, director of the Stetson Veterans Clinic. “There’s a clinic at George Mason University in DC that does legal assistance for active duty military. They also do some veterans disability work. There’s a clinic out in California that handles GI Bill benefits and there’s a clinic in Arizona that helps represent veterans in Veterans Treatment Court.”
And the University of Miami Law School has a Health Rights Clinic that helps veterans with benefits claims.
Simcox estimates there are about 50 law school veteran clinics in various stages of development. That covers about 25 percent of the 200 law schools in the U.S. The veteran clinics are fairly new to law schools, yet they are a close knit community linked through a listserv.
“We’re constantly on the listserv saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got this issue does anyone else have this? Hey, can somebody take a case like this? Or have you done one where you can send us a brief?’” Simcox said adding that their purpose also includes “training future lawyers to be good ones.”
Simcox served eight years in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps on active duty and in the Reserves. She co-founded the Veterans Benefits Clinic at William & Mary Law School in Virginia - which was nationally recognized by the VA secretary - before she joined Stetson’s Veterans Clinic in 2014.
Now, Stetson is one of three founding members of the new National Law School Veterans Clinic Consortium. It formalizes the listserv partnership and gives the veterans legal community a stronger voice in shaping VA policy.
“We also have thoughts on best practices, how the VA and people who are practicing veterans’ law can improve the system. And how we can train future attorneys to go out and do free work for veterans. There’s a wide variety of ways that law schools can get involved to help an underserved community.”
And the new administration in Washington D.C., Simcox said, can be an opportunity to streamline the VA benefits and appeals process.
“Can it be changed? It’s going to take some significant effort. I think Gen. (Eric) Shinseki (VA Secretary from 2009-2014) would say that he tried to change it and it didn’t happen. And Phoenix happened, the Phoenix wait list fiasco. It’s going to take a special person to go into the VA, know what’s wrong with it, with the bureaucracy in the first place, and kind of weed that out.”
The consortium is preparing for two scenarios, Simcox said: training pro bono attorneys to work within the existing VA system; and looking to shape policy and reform legislation regarding veteran benefits.
But the organization’s broader goal is to provide a support system for the growing number of veterans clinics.
“Ideally there would be one in every law school because anywhere you go across the country, if you ask veterans if there’s enough help in this area, there’s a resounding no.”
And regardless of what happens in the new administration, Simcox is sure of one thing - the need for law school veterans’ clinics will continue to grow.