Veterans Law Center expands free services

Wisconsin map with VA clinic locationsNearly 300 veterans have been offered free legal assistance since UW Law School started its Veterans Law Center (VLC) in November 2012. Volunteer attorneys, along with paralegals and law students, provide brief legal advice, information, and referrals on a variety of civil legal matters.

Laura Smythe wants to help more. “There’s a huge unmet need,” says Smythe, who has served as director for the past two years.

This fall, the program launched two initiatives by adding mobile clinics that will travel throughout the state, as well as a new permanent monthly clinic held at Wisconsin’s Department of Veterans Affairs in Madison.

The first mobile VLC traveled to Appleton Public Library to offer assistance to veterans who can’t attend the regularly scheduled clinics in Madison. More mobile stops will be planned with a goal of two or three a year to begin with.

The idea to go mobile came after numerous phone calls from people who didn’t have a way to get to Madison but needed help. Turning away people in need was heartbreaking for Smythe.

“It felt like we could be doing more to expand outreach throughout the state,” Smythe says. “That’s what law in action is all about.”

Smythe attended the Wisconsin Idea Seminar, a five-day traveling study tour that immerses forty UW–Madison faculty, academic staff, and administrators in the educational, industrial, social, and political realities of Wisconsin. After the trip, Smythe was inspired to take the Veterans Law Center on the road.

Smythe also wanted to expand the VLC’s services by adding a permanent clinic at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The clinic, she says, complements the services that are available to veterans in a location that is already a known resource. The monthly clinic will be held on the fourth Friday of each month, from 11 a.m.–1 p.m. The new initiatives are already seeing success, says Smythe. Since the program started, it has seen 286 clients. Just this year, it has seen 46 clients.

Training is offered each semester for students. Smythe says it’s invaluable experience, no matter what area of law they plan to practice.

“Everything they learned in class — this is what it looks like in the real world,” Smythe says. “There’s learning in the classroom and then there’s the meaningful application of what you’ve learned. It’s really healthy to get out of the classroom.”

While legal issues are difficult for anyone to face, it can be even harder for those adjusting to life as a civilian, Smythe says. Some of the issues facing veterans include foreclosure, bankruptcy, housing issues, and unemployment benefits. Often, students can do research while the attorney continues to work closely with the client.

It’s not just legal help they offer. It’s an ear. While Smythe hopes the students learn more about law from the experience, she wants them to also learn how important it is to listen to their clients.

“They have a story that’s worth listening to,” Smythe says.