Fighting for Veterans' Rights

Emory Law serves those who have served in our nation's military and their families.

By Michelle Valigursky

Story Photo

Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans founders Rachel Erdman14L Law Professor Charles Shanor, Adjunct Law Professor H. Lane Dennard, Martin Bunt 14L.

“Men and women who have valiantly served our nation’s military deserve legal representation to ensure their rights are protected,” says J. Martin Bunt 14L, student founder of the Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans. “By consolidating efforts to represent their needs into our new Emory clinic, we provide an invaluable service to veterans who must navigate the challenges of health care and military benefits.”

The clinic motto is “Serving Those Who Have Served Us,” and its mission is clear: “to provide free legal representation for service-connected disability claims and other civil matters to those who have served our country.” Just this week, the founding team participated in a panel discussion and hosted an exhibit at the Georgia Accountability Courts Conference.

“Emory Law School was approached in late spring 2012 by the Military Law and Veterans Benefits Section of the State Bar of Georgia. The Section wanted to meet with representatives of law schools in Georgia about possibly establishing clinics to assist veterans. All schools expressed reservations because clinics are typically very expensive to operate and all the schools are tight on program funds,” explains Emory Law Professor and Clinic Faculty Advisor Charles Shanor.

Shanor explained the genesis of the Emory project. “I mentioned the clinic idea to Martin in the fall. He was enthusiastic, and the two of us requested a follow-up with the bar section leadership.” The team enlisted the support of H. Lane Dennard, adjunct professor of law and retired partner with King & Spalding in Atlanta. Dennard, Bunt, and Shanor attended the bar meeting and the idea to initiate a clinic at Emory began to solidify. “Dennard agreed to oversee, and Emory Law School Dean Robert Schapiro approved the idea, which was to operate a very low-budget volunteer clinic, see if it worked, and seek funding to retain and expand, if successful.”

To finalize the concept, the team brought in a contingent from John Marshall Law School in Chicago, which operates the best-known and oldest veterans’ clinic in the country. “The collaboration helped us identify what operational issues needed to be addressed and how John Marshall had handled these. We also explored ways to provide substantive training for student volunteers on handling veterans benefit claims,” Shanor explained.

The Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans opened in mid-February 2013. Bunt and co-founder Rachel Erdman 14L, both members of the National Security Law Society and winners of the Trailblazers Award, drew inspiration from the career and military experience of U.S. Army veteran H. Lane Dennard, Jr. A highly decorated veteran who has received the Silver Star, Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal, and Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, Dennard is now the clinic’s co-director in addition to his role as adjunct professor to the Emory School of Law. 

“Professor Dennard’s experience is essential in guiding students through tough cases. His passion for helping and expertise in veterans’ affairs makes him an enthusiastic mentor and an invaluable part of the clinic,” says Erdman.

An internationally recognized expert in military and counterterrorism law, Shanor says, “The clinic is a wonderful opportunity for students to experience the best aspects of lawyering: serving clients, analyzing problems, and helping to articulate and solve those problems. Through this clinic experience, they learn to become better lawyers.”

The clinic offers student volunteers a chance to earn pro-bono and public service hours while partnering with many lawyers currently working on veterans’ law. Erdman provides organizational leadership and scheduling for student volunteers. The Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans has trained forty-three law student volunteers on how “to handle interesting, difficult, problematic cases with more consequences due to the veterans’ administration courts,” says Bunt, who was recently awarded the Outstanding Grad School Organization President Award.

Sixteen cases are in process including a disability ratings case for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a petition for discharge upgrade before the Board for Correction of Naval Records, two cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims, a pension case for the widow and four children of a veteran, a case involving access to records, and VA healthcare issues, a matter for the Georgia Vietnam Veterans’ Alliance. Both the Military Veterans’ Law Section and the Military Legal Assistance Program of the Georgia bar actively support the clinic.

In addition, student volunteers and their mentors aim to help establish an initiative for a Veterans Court in Georgia. Dennard points out, “Their work includes a review of draft legislation, research on constitutional issues, and analysis of the economic impact of veterans’ courts. The goal is to offer medical treatment and monitoring through the Veterans Administration as an alternative to standard criminal sentencing.”

Veterans’ Law Clinic Grows

From its grassroots beginnings with a goal to serve the close to 800,000 veterans in Georgia (including 200,000 in metro Atlanta alone), the development of the Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans has made Emory Law “the first law school in Georgia and one of the first in the South to provide a legal clinic specifically to meet the needs of our veterans,” says Erdman.

Initial funding helped to initiate program fundamentals for basic equipment, part-time administrative support, and other organizational expenses. Now, the clinic seeks to expand and attain funding for public service internships and full-time staff.

Erdman points out, “We have had immense support and interest in veterans pro-bono work from the student body, but we need more mentors.” She explains, “Pairing students with attorney mentors benefits both parties. The students learn how to navigate veterans’ pro-bono work and can continue this work after graduation. The attorneys can give some of the work-load to the student, saving time.”

As funding for the program increases, the Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans hopes to increase caseload, hire more permanent staff and support personnel, and expand its website and facilities. Shanor says, “Lawyers who will be doing the pro-bono work ultimately have responsibility for the cases. Students are working on cases, so that is a win-win.” He notes that enhancing infrastructure will allow them to offer summer public service internships and post-graduate fellowships which are both program goals.

“The benefit to veterans is tangible,” says Bunt. “For each client’s case, we provide a practicing attorney plus two or three student assistants who research legal issues, write or draft papers, and provide legal advocacy.”

“The response to our efforts on behalf of veterans has been truly remarkable,” Bunt says. Shanor adds, “Folks in the medical school and school of public health have reached out, saying ‘What can we do to help? Can we partner on this? The answer is yes.’ We need to be able to draw on medical experts to help,” he says, noting that students pursuing dual degrees in law and public health are natural candidates for involvement. “It’s the perfect opportunity to merge their disciplinary interests.”

Shanor is proud of the Emory team he advises. “There are more students doing more cases with this volunteer clinic than this law school has in any other clinical program,” he says. “It’s bigger already than any of the other clinics that we know of in the country working to protect veterans’ rights.”

Editor’s Note: To learn more about the Veterans Law Clinic or to volunteer, please visit the clinic website or read the June edition of Georgia Law Journal. Click here to support the important work being done at the Emory University School of Law today.

Email the editor

Michelle Valigursky