While you may not know it, there’s a hidden treasure over in Arlington, Va., and it’s time the world learn just how valuable of an asset it is to the region. Deep in the heart of the George Mason University School of Law’s campus lies the Clinic for Legal Assistance to Servicemembers and Veterans, a program that has been dedicated to giving back to veterans for nearly a decade, offering $1 million in pro bono services to date.
The clinic started developing after 9/11, a huge turning point in our history. The law school has always had a high veteran population and many of them were called to active duty or deployed as a result of the twin tower terrorist attack. It was then that George Mason’s law school began discovering that their students who had been deployed were experiencing quite an influx of legal problems. They were legal issues that hadn’t been present before because we as a country had been out of conflict for so long.
So, in lending a helping hand, the law school jumped into action to work with those servicemembers. This propelled the university to also seek out others who were were serving and experiencing similar legal issues that they couldn’t handle.
It was abundantly clear that the law school knew what it was doing early on, intent on lessening the burden on servicemembers and making the world a better place for veterans to live in. That’s when the dean agreed that this is what the institution should be focusing on, and with that CLASV was born.
“Our goal is to help servicemembers with legal problems that arise out of their service and employment and train our students how to be lawyers while giving them a safe place to learn law,” Laurie Forbes Neff, director of CLASV, said over the phone quite proudly. “I took over the clinic just about two years ago and since then we have served 66 active duty members.”
In order for a servicemember to be accepted as a client at the clinic, they first must file an online application. From there CLASV reviews it and makes an initial determination based on the application to see if it’s something the clinic can handle, Neff explained. She admitted that there are certain areas of the law CLASV simply does not have the man power or depth to be able to handle. Things like criminal matters and contested family law, which are fairly complex claims.
If CLASV maintains that they can handle the case, though, a student then calls the applicant, gathers factual information about their legal issue and confirms that they’re a servicemember or family of a servicemember. At that point in time the student returns to CLASV and buckles down to do whatever legal research they need to do to determine what needs to be done prior to writing an assessment memo.
Mentors then step in to sit down with the student and determine if the issue at hand is one that they can manage. The answer more often than not is yes, and then CLASV takes that servicemember on as a client.
“It’s basically a law firm within the law school. They act like little baby associates,” Neff said while laughing to herself. “Students are always first chair on the trial, if there’s a trial. They run the case. It’s a real hands-on experience.” Yes, they’re still supervised appropriately and receive guidance, but these students are doing it, they’re getting practical experience with real life cases that have a real impact on their clients.
As for what students get out of the experience, Neff contended that the clinic offers them an opportunity to learn about cultural competence. “Lots of my students are veterans, spouses, or active duty members, but some have had no connection to the military, so we work hard to get them up to speed on the cultural awareness of this population,” she said. “We spend a lot of time talking about the military and what their specific issues might be.”
One issue she mentioned was PTSD. “We talk a lot about PSTD and how to talk to clients about their PTSD. Lawyers that are practicing normally don’t have training in how to deal with clients with PTSD or traumatic brain injury. We have a trauma therapist comes in to help our students learn how to talk to these types of clients.”
I could list out statistics now and rave about how successful CLASV has been, but nothing speaks more for the clinic then what Neff said next.”They don’t want to leave. Our students want to stay on to continue the cases they’re working on through fruition so they have resolution. They form bonds with their clients and become invested in seeing their cases through.” Inspiring, right?
And they continue to give back too, much thanks to the great opportunities CLASV allowed them, with a significant number of Neff’s students going on to be JAG officers.
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