by Art Levy
Law professor Michael Allen draws inspiration from President Abraham Lincoln as he oversees the new Veterans Law Institute at Stetson University’s College of Law. Allen, the institute’s director, points to a line from Lincoln’s second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, just two months before the official end of the Civil War:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
It’s the “borne the battle” part that speaks most to Allen, who calls the institute “a modern day embodiment of what Abraham Lincoln said.”
Apart from giving law students practical experience, the institute also takes on varied roles in serving both veterans and active-duty military personnel. It operates a Veterans Advocacy Clinic in Gulfport, for example, where law students, under the supervision of professors, work with veterans whose attempts to get upgraded benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs have been rejected. The help is free for the vets. The institute also has a pro bono program that links lawyers with deployed soldiers and their families dealing with foreclosure or other legal issues.
“It’s the right thing to do, but it also provides tremendous opportunities to our students to gain the practical skills, knowledge and values to become competent, caring, ethical professionals,” Allen says. “It provides an infrastructure for law schools to do what law schools really should also do, which is advance the law. So, it’s a moral responsibility, but it also serves the educational goals of the institution.”
The clinic, which opened this summer, started with one student, who handled 14 cases. This fall, the clinic has five students and, so far, more than 60 vets have called, and 18 have officially applied for representation. Cynthia Batt, a law professor and Stetson’s director of clinical education, says the clinic’s “phones have been ringing every day.” She expects that eight students will sign up to work in the clinic during the spring semester. They’ll be assigned as many clients as they can handle, she says.
The disputes typically revolve around disagreements between the VA and the veteran about the vet’s level of disability after an injury and how much the disability is worth. In 2006, 800,000 vets nationwide applied for benefits. Next year, the VA is expected to consider 1.2 million claims.
“There’s a huge demand for our legal services,” Batt says. “As a group, the veterans are incredibly underserved.”
Emily Pabalan, one of the law students working in the clinic, is a veteran herself. She served nine years in the Air Force and knows many vets — including her husband — who struggle to navigate the military’s benefits bureaucracy.
“I’ve learned it’s a difficult process that’s not supposed to be difficult,” she says. “These are veterans who have been disabled. They have valid injuries. They have an illness that was diagnosed while they were in the military. They’re disheartened to have to come to us. At the end of the day, some of them are in tears just because somebody understands what they’re going through. I’ve learned a lot about human nature and what it’s like for people to be suffering and to feel like they’re a victim all over again.”