Allan Dubois and Jo Ann Merica 2017-10-19 17:46:24
Local bars serve those in need who have served our country. Many lawyers across Texas will pay tribute this Veterans Day with expressions of gratitude: by providing much needed legal advice and assistance to those who have served in the armed forces of our country. In our own clinic experiences, we’ve seen these cases: A veteran of the Iraq War returns from service to find his or her house foreclosed following a default judgment. A reservist, about to be deployed, cannot convince a landlord that a lease can be terminated under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. A disabled veteran needs help appealing a determination he or she is not qualified for Department of Veterans Affairs benefits. A veteran receiving disability benefits needs child support modified. A veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder caused by sexual harassment in the military seeks a discharge upgrade. All of these cases, big or small, are success stories of Texas lawyers making a positive difference in the life of a person who has willingly risked life and limb for our freedom. This tradition of creating and volunteering at legal clinics around the state began in 2010, when then-State Bar President Terry Tottenham requested a commitment from our bar to help our veterans. In carrying out his mission, Totttenham recruited many colleagues—including us. We quickly enlisted in his campaign to provide pro bono legal assistance to veterans in need of legal counsel and to encourage the creation of veterans courts in certain criminal matters. One of those endeavors was starting Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans, modeled on the work of Kay Sim, executive director of the Houston Bar Association, and Travis Sales, a past president of the HBA who established in 2008 a weekly legal clinic at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston. Many resources have been contributed over the years to this endeavor. Information about lawyer accreditation by the VA was provided in free TexasBarCLE webcasts and in a CLE on veterans’ disability benefits hosted by Baylor Law School. The material was taught by the Texas Veterans Commission. Funds were dedicated to training and service materials, including publication of comprehensive pamphlets created by the Texas Young Lawyers Association under the leadership of Jennifer Morris: Resources for Veterans Seeking Help and Resources for Lawyers Assisting Veterans. Countless hours were spent with state and local bar staff to create a Clinic in a Box to be distributed at the annual Bar Leaders Conference and to be made available to other states interested in creating their own clinics. The goal of Clinic in a Box was to provide everything needed to host a local veterans legal clinic. In the past six years, it has grown to include not only the resource books and a flash drive including files of all printed materials, but also marketing information, signage, applicant and volunteer sign-in sheets, legal referral resource information, questionnaires for various substantive legal areas, TLTV promotional stickers, volunteer lapel pins, file folders, a calculator, pens, pencils, stamp pads, clips, etc. It is everything necessary to hit the ground running with a veterans legal advice clinic. Each clinic hosted, whether in a rural area or big city, can easily be tailored to the needs and corresponding assets of the community. The only essential ingredient for success is the availability of caring volunteers. In San Antonio, the veterans legal clinic is held monthly at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital, with special emphasis given to marketing around Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Originally, the clinic was in partnership with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, led by Ann Zaragoza, and the successful existing Community Justice Program, or CJP, which already did frequent divorce and wills clinics. Under the leadership of past San Antonio Bar presidents—Judges Karen Pozza and Phylis Speedlin—CJP took cases of veteran clients who signed up in advance and were screened by Legal Aid. In recent years, with more community publicity bringing walk-ins, the clinics have become less structured. Clients counseled now include widows and spouses of veterans. These days, the San Antonio clinic looks more like the original Houston prototype, with the majority of services rendered being “legal advice only.” Topics run the gamut from “storefront” law practice, family and support issues, wills and probate, landlord tenant, consumer and contracts, debt collection, tickets and minor offenses, insurance and liability, and disability qualification issues. Gatherings are supported by a benefits and disability expert from the Texas Veterans Commission, an Attorney General’s Child Support Division attorney, and clinic faculty and law students from St. Mary’s University School of Law. USAA is now a regular clinic volunteer partner, along with law firms, and sections of the San Antonio Bar Association. Judges Lisa Jarrett and David Canales are now the CJP representatives. Attorneys and clients both have options: to enter an agreement for full case representation or to have the San Antonio Bar staff attorney find a volunteer lawyer who practices in the field who will take the case, or to simply provide basic legal advice and guidance. Often, a support group like the bar auxiliary, or a specialty bar group, will donate refreshments. Annually, the CJP recognizes extraordinary volunteers or groups with awards. Proceeds from an annual musical featuring performances by local lawyer volunteers provide financial support for CJP. Grants from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation help to support the program as well. In Austin, legal services and advice at the VA Outpatient Clinic have always been in strong demand. The first clinic, organized in 2010 by the Austin Bar Association and Executive Director DeLaine Ward, had 50 veterans in line by 7:30 a.m. The volunteer attorneys who began the monthly program, assisted by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, are now backed with a permanent attorney position funded with assistance from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and by support from Austin Bar Association staff and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. Veterans who come to the clinic receive brief advice. Those needing additional services may have their cases taken at the clinic by the counseling volunteer or may be referred to a private attorney, the local referral service, Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas, or Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. The Dallas Bar Association, in conjunction with the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, has consistently provided resources to veterans at a regular monthly clinic held in the Veterans Resource Center. Don Williams put “boots on the ground” in El Paso right away with the legal community that surrounds Fort Bliss, a major U.S. Army post, by quickly forming El Paso Lawyers for Patriots. Not surprisingly, Houston Volunteer Lawyers, or HVL, has continued to lead the veterans clinic expansion movement. It continues to host and lead the CLE aspect of the access to justice track at the Bar Leaders Conference. HVL also offers outreach support to towns in rural areas and counties that do not have regular full-time bar staff to assist in conducting clinics. These efforts ensure a veterans clinic presence even in outlying areas that are tailored to that particular community’s needs and specifications. The State Bar of Texas Local Bar Services Department organizes statewide outreach and provides expert assistance. There are veterans clinics and related programs held all around the state. You may check for clinics in your area at texasbar.com/veterans. Since the inception of the statewide implementation of Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans, more than 9,000 attorney, paralegal, and law student volunteers have provided legal services to 28,000 veterans. The work is gratifying and the veterans are most grateful to receive a lawyer’s time and expertise free of charge. This November, on the observance of Veterans Day, it is our earnest hope that you will join us and other Texas lawyers in wholehearted service to our veterans. ALLAN DUBOIS is a solo practitioner in San Antonio representing clients in civil litigation and mediating disputes. He is a past president of the State Bar of Texas and volunteers at veterans clinics and for the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program. JO ANN MERICA is a partner at Duggins Wren Mann & Romero in Austin, where she focuses on commercial, construction, and real estate related litigation. She teaches advocacy at the University of Texas School of Law and served as the statewide chair of Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans and as co-chair of the Austin Bar Association’s veterans legal advice clinic.
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