Through Duke Law Program, Students Help Veterans Access the Benefits they Deserve

Duke Law students volunteer to help under-resourced and homeless veterans with various legal services, including tax preparation and record expungement.

The Duke Law School’s Veterans Assistance Project (VAP) helps veterans access earned benefits. The students in the program aid veterans with diverse backgrounds and subsequently diverse needs. Some veterans live without consistent homes, some live far from Veterans’ Affairs hospitals, some struggle with addiction and substance abuse, and some simply need help understanding a jungle of legal requirements. Putting second- and third-year law students into a program where they can guide claimants through the Veterans’ Affairs process, not only gives veterans access to their dues, it puts the law school to work for the North Carolina community.

The Duke Law Veterans’ Assistance Project most often assists with military discharge upgrade requests and requests to obtain or increase a disability rating. In addition to being unfamiliar with the legal requirements needed to obtain these changes, many veterans left the service long ago and only now need help from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. According to second-year law student and U.S. Army veteran Timothy Dill, one of three Duke Law student program directors, “This [timespan] can make verifying and evaluating their [veterans’] claims difficult, particularly where the veterans no longer have related paperwork.”

The unique nature of the clients means students in this program must undergo training beforehand. In addition to understanding the nature of their relationship to the client and to the supervising attorney, they must remember that the information they ask for is not always the information they need. Dill avidly reminds students to “ask follow-up questions! Clients that are not familiar with claim requirements may not present all of the necessary information in a comprehensive and concise manner, so it is critical to flesh out the details of their service history in order to properly evaluate their claim.”

In addition to veterans who left the service many years ago, the VAP also aims to help veterans working through other adversities such as addiction, disability and homelessness. Trying to connect with a veteran over the phone to learn about their claim is made exponentially more difficult when the veteran does not have their own cell phone. The claims process requires students to understand intimate details of the veteran’s life and to develop a deep level of trust. In order to ensure that a claim is not later dismissed because of the revelation of disparaging information such as a criminal conviction, the student must make sure to know everything about that veteran’s situation.

The students work under a supervising attorney from Legal Aid of North Carolina. Because the students are not barred to practice law in North Carolina, they cannot legally give advice to the client. Instead, they gather details for a claim on behalf of the veteran and suggest a course of action to the supervising attorney who then decides how to go forward and what to advise.

As Dill points out though hiring an attorney is always a theoretical option for veterans, the cost may be prohibitive, particularly for veterans currently not receiving a benefit to which they believe they are entitled. Through our Legal Aid of North Carolina supervising attorney, the Duke Law VAP provides free legal screening, and serves as a gateway to free legal representation for the claims most likely to succeed.”

Because so many of these veterans exist outside the traditional system, the VAP fills a special need. As second-year law student Diana Kim noted “VAP in particular is a way to interact with and serve a smaller subsection of the population that is often pushed aside.” The program at its core acknowledges the plight of veterans and aims to alleviate the adversities they face.

“For those [students] who have no experience or connection with veterans,” Kim added, “the work VAP does gives a deeper understanding of the particular issues that some veterans face.”

This post is part of our Duke in North Carolina Series showcasing Duke’s activities in and in service to local communities, environments, economies and people.

See more here.