Veterans disability benefits clinic to provide hands-on experience for law students

Students in the clinic will act as lawyers and help veterans with the appellate process.

Students of the School of Law will soon be able to apply classroom skills toward helping veterans obtain disability benefits.

The law school is accepting applications for its new Veterans Clinic, in which law students can participate starting Spring 2014.

The clinic will help veterans secure compensation that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs may deny them. Students at the clinic will act as lawyers and help veterans with the appellate process, which appeals decisions the VA makes.

“(Students) will actually do practical skills, like interviewing clients, looking at medical records, formulating legal theory and writing briefs,” supervising attorney Angela Drake said. “So it will be a practical application of a lot of skills they’ve learned, and they’ll learn some new skills.”

If a veteran files a claim for benefits through a regional VA office and it is denied, lawyers step in to help them through two levels of appeal: the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

The clinic will help out veterans trying to file notice disagreements, or claims that will overturn the VA’s decisions, with the board of appeals. The veterans will be a part of the Mizzou Student Veterans Association as well as other MU students who are veterans.

Students in the clinic will also partner with the non-profit organization Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program, based in Washington, D.C., to work with clients taking their cases to the Courts of Appeals.

“(When) the veteran receives the final decision from the board and he’s not happy with it, he gets in touch with us and files a notice of appeal within 120 days,” said David Myers, director of case evaluations and placement component. “We get a copy of his claim file, (and) we review it and the board decision.”

David Myers said if the consortium takes cases, they will attempt to assign them based on geographical proximity to the clinic. The organization will then send documents to the lawyers at the MU Veterans Clinic.

Drake said the clinic provides a good hands-on opportunity for students.

“The clinics are different than other law school classes because they’re experiential,” Drake said. “The student actually experiences the real clinic as opposed to the lectures as many of our classes are.”

The vision for the Veterans Clinic came about when law students Scott Apking and Larry Lambert participated in a mock court competition in Washington, D.C., in front of real judges from the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The two subsequently pushed for a veterans clinic that would provide experience with veterans benefits law.

School of Law Dean Gary Myers and Assistant Dean Robert Bailey liked the idea.

Gary Myers said he was already intent on expanding the law school’s clinical programs, which currently include a criminal prosecution clinic, domestic violence clinic and a mediation clinic.

Along with the law student organization, Missouri Law Veterans Society, which Apking and Lambert are the president and co-president of, respectively, the dean decided to follow in the footsteps of a successful veterans clinic at the Chapman University Fowler School of Law.

Christopher Dunn, clinic webmaster and law student, said the clinic is a good way for students to give back to a cause they support.

“My goal in participating in the clinic is to learn how to competently handle an appeal for a veteran who might not otherwise be able to retain a lawyer who specializes in this area of practice,” Dunn said in an email. “I’ve been around enough vets and seen the real life consequences of our government’s failure to deliver on its fundamental promises made to its wounded or disabled veterans.”

Dunn, who is a Gulf War veteran and comes from a military family, said he knows of cases where the system wore people out with paperwork and delays.

“I’m looking forward to this experience, and I’m looking forward to getting back into the fight with my fellow veterans by my side,” he said. “If I can help a veteran who is getting screwed by the system, I will consider that a good day’s work.”

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