Free legal assistance for Dane County veterans became available last November, when the University of Wisconsin Law School launched its new Veterans Law Center.
The center provides veterans with basic legal information, as well as guidance for civil cases. Since opening, it has served approximately forty veterans.
According to Ann Zimmerman, the Law School’s pro bono director, “The need for civil legal services among veterans is substantial, partly due to the numbers of soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Some of the issues that center clients are confronting include foreclosure, housing, divorce, child custody matters, and unemployment benefits, she says.
Last fall, forty law students were trained to work at the center with volunteer attorneys and paralegals. Two attorneys and two law students are scheduled for each clinic and work as partners, with the attorney taking the lead during client interviews.
Zimmerman says one of the center’s goals is inspiring students to commit to pro bono practice throughout their professional careers. And, she adds, students are finding the experience has sharpened their legal skills and expanded their professional contacts: “They really appreciate working alongside and learning from the attorneys and paralegals who donate their time.”
Some students bring more than legal expertise to the center. Leigh Neville-Neil, a third-year law student and center volunteer, served with the U.S. Army in Iraq for eighteen months. Being a fellow veteran helps her understand the challenges clients face, she says.
“A lot of veterans don’t know what services are available,” Neville-Neil adds. “This [center] helps make them aware of programs that might help them get their lives back on track.”
Dan Rock, a second-year law student, is a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps and another of the center’s student volunteers. Rock says his background not only helps him relate to clients, but also inspires him to raise awareness among students about the issues veterans face.
“Hopefully we will be able to provide veterans with information or contacts that can help them with whatever legal issue they have,” Rock says. “There are many services available to assist our veterans with their problems, but it is often complicated and confusing to determine what those services are and how to use them.”
The free legal center is funded by a $5,000 Pro Bono Initiative grant from the State Bar Legal Assistance Committee. The project is administered by the UW Law School’s Pro Bono Program and is a collaborative effort with support from the Dane County Veterans Service Office, the Dane County Bar Association, Zion Lutheran Church in Madison, Porchlight, Inc., and representatives from the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison. Habush Habush & Rottier SC contributed an additional $5,000 to fund the center.