Less than a month after he arrived in South Vietnam, Major Joe W. Green died in action. The 34-year-old career Army officer left behind a wife and a 10-year-old daughter in Omaha, Neb., on that fateful day in 1970.
That daughter, now a lawyer and a law professor, is about to head up a new legal clinic at the University of Missouri School of Law devoted to helping veterans obtain disability benefits.
Angela Drake describes herself as an “Army brat” and said she went to both college and law school on the GI Bill.
“I’m just thrilled to be able to work on something like this that’s good for the students and good for veterans and honors my father,” she said.
Not many lawyers practice in the area of veterans benefits, and there is plenty of work to go around. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Missouri is home to 505,729 veterans, as of September 2012. In comparison, the VA has accredited 201 Missouri attorneys to do veterans benefit work.
Jeffrey J. Bunten, a St. Louis lawyer who handles VA benefits claims at Dennis Fox & Associates, said 1.6 million veterans are within the boundaries of the 8th Circuit with fewer than 500 VA-accredited lawyers to represent them.
“These veterans need help,” he said. “You can do the math in terms of the number of clients and unmet legal need.”
The clinical program is scheduled to begin in January with six students and Drake as the supervising attorney. The clinic will focus on taking veterans’ claims to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
The clinic has guaranteed funding from an anonymous donor of $50,000 a year for five years. Another anonymous donor gave a smaller amount, but law school spokeswoman Casey Baker would not divulge the amount or duration of the gift. In addition, the law school will pay the supervising attorney to teach related classes, Baker said.
With the launching of the program, the University of Missouri will become the 18th law school to open a veterans clinic, Drake said.
Two law students — Larry Lambert, 30, and Scott Apking, 29 — brought the idea to Dean Gary Myers in 2012, during the second semester of their first year at the school, the students said. In the meantime, Myers said the dean at Chapman University Law School in Orange, Calif., told him about the work Chapman was doing in this area.
“It struck me as a good opportunity for this law school and for our students, as well as a chance to provide a public service to veterans and their families,” Myers said in a telephone interview.
Lambert and Apking, now third-year law students, are both veterans, and when they entered law school they began looking for ways to help other veterans.
Apking served in the Army from 2008 until 2011 and spent nine months in Iraq. He now is a staff sergeant in the Army Reserves. He had his own difficulties navigating the system to claim his educational benefits under the GI Bill, and he knew other veterans who had problems dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“If you compound that, I know that there are a lot of people out there who might be entitled to veterans benefits who just have no idea how to navigate the system at all,” he said. “So getting law students involved in that is a positive thing.”
For Lambert, the drive to help veterans was “a no-brainer.” He said his father was a disabled veteran from the Vietnam era.
“I know the difficulties firsthand of dealing with the VA just from a very young age,” he said. Lambert himself was a petty officer third class for the Navy, where he worked as a corpsman at a weapons station in Virginia and a boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill. He joined after graduating from high school in 2001 and served for five years.
‘A lot of good’
Asked how the clinic is coming together, Lambert said, “It’s got legs, and it’s walking on its own.” It has been an easy sell, he said, and has gotten a lot of support from the community and the law school. “I think it stands to do a lot of good for Missouri veterans,” he added.
During the 2012 fiscal year, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals issued 44,300 decisions and held 12,334 hearings, according to its FY12 annual report. At the same time it estimated it would receive 54,033 new cases in the 2013 fiscal year and issue 46,620 decisions. The federal government’s fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.
The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims issued 6,992 dispositions during FY12, according its annual report. (Dispositions include decisions on appeals, petitions, Equal Access to Justice Act applications and requests for reconsideration of panel decisions.)
The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims was created in 1988, so veterans law is still a new area, and the law school clinics are still in their infancy, said James Ridgway, chief counsel for policy and procedure at the VA’s Board of Veterans’ Appeals.
“Hopefully, it’ll be a virtuous cycle, where more clinics lead to more people who actually practice veterans law, which lead to more people who are experienced enough to support a clinic in a local area that has a need for it,” he said.
And Drake said she hopes the students will continue to take on VA benefits cases on a pro bono basis after graduation.
The American Bar Association limits clinical instructors to eight students, but Drake is limiting herself to six for the first semester.
Clinical students will meet twice a week — the first day for a lecture on substantive areas of the law and the second day to work on a case file. Two students will work on one file in the course of a semester. Under Drake’s supervision, they’ll do whatever needs to be done, including finding and interviewing witnesses, reading the medical file and determining whether to send the veteran out for another medical opinion. The students also will develop the legal theory of their case and write appellate briefs.
The clinic will get its case files from the Washington, D.C.-based Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program, a nonprofit that trains lawyers to do veterans cases and matches veterans with lawyers. The clinic’s focus on appellate work will complement the law school’s domestic violence clinic and its criminal prosecution clinic, which are focused on the trial courts, Drake said.
VA benefits lawyers cautioned about some of the potential pitfalls facing the students.
The students only will participate in the clinic for one semester, but VA benefits cases can take much longer than that to develop the evidence, Bunten said. The student turnover could hinder the attorney-client relationship, he said.
But Ridgway, at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, said the supervising attorney would be the primary connection.
“It’d be like the partner who manages a client even though the cast of the associates may change from issue to issue and case to case,” he said.
Bunten, drawing on his experience with law school interns, said the clinic should make sure that the students fully understand the duty of confidentiality. He said he has had to counsel students that “we don’t talk about cases outside these four walls,” especially when medical histories are involved.
Michael R. Viterna, a Belleville, Mich., attorney and president of the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates, said VA benefits law is a complex and fast-changing area.
“It’s mind-numbing,” he said. “But if you don’t stay immersed, you can be caught off-guard.” Dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs is also tough, he said.
The VA has created separate pathways for veterans to prove their claims, including establishing certain presumptions for those exposed to the chemical Agent Orange, those exposed to radiation and those who were prisoners of war, Ridgway said.
“These theories are beneficial to veterans because they give them a lot of alternative ways of winning,” he said. “But if you’re a student trying to figure out how to win a case for the veteran, it can be very hard to makes sure that you’ve looked at every potential theory and submitted what you can on those theories.”
While Drake is accredited by the VA, she hasn’t done this type of work before and is undergoing intense training to prepare, she said. At the end of September she attended the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates’ fall conference, which includes training for new practitioners. She is planning to attend the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program’s training session in Nashville this month, and she is developing a network of attorneys to call on for advice.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think I could do it,” she said, adding that she has had 25 years of litigation experience and has pages of notes from talking with directors of other schools’ veterans clinics.
In addition to serving veterans, the clinic will benefit law students by giving them practical experience they can carry over into other areas of the law, Drake said.
“The job market’s tough,” she said. “We’re sending students out there, and they need to know how to practice law. … They crave real cases with real people with real issues.”