The Veterans Legal Clinic—its official title in the curriculum is the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic—is made up of three collaborative projects: the Veterans Justice Project, the Estate Planning Project, and the Safety Net Project. Through these three projects, students represent veterans and their family members in a variety of case types. In all our case work, we strive to help veterans and their families attain the maximum degree of stability, dignity, and financial well being. We use creative legal strategies not just to vindicate the rights of individual veterans, but to pursue systemic reforms within the institutions and programs that are designed to support the veteran community.
Enrollment in all three projects is through the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic and Clinical Seminar. We ask enrolled students to express their preference for one of our three project areas. Students can also choose, however, to work across two projects if that option is attractive to them. We fully expect to be able to honor each student’s first preference for a project. This page is about the Safety Net Project. Scroll down to learn more about the Safety Net Project.
About the Work of the Safety Net Project
In ensuring access to safety net programs for clients, students have numerous lawyering opportunities, including client and witness interviewing, legal research and writing, client counseling, negotiation, motion practice, evidentiary hearings involving opening statements, witness examination, and closing arguments, and appellate oral argument.
Giving the specific example of work on Social Security disability appeals, students represent clients contesting the denial of Social Security benefits. In preparing cases for hearing before administrative law judges, students interview and counsel clients, compile the evidentiary record, collaborate with medical providers, and prepare a hearing brief. Students appear with their clients at the hearing, conduct both direct and cross-examination of witnesses, and present oral argument. Under the supervision of experienced instructors, law students have a high success rate in these hearings with the rare denials offering opportunity for appellate practice including complaints, motions and appellate briefs to Federal District Court and presenting oral argument before a federal judge.
All of the clients we represent have serious health issues. Some clients are older and in failing physical health, others are younger and have mental health or intellectual disorders. Many of the client are disabled veterans. Enrolled students have frequent opportunities to interact with medical providers and medical experts and to work on cases at the intersection of disability rights, disability access, mental health and the law.
The Safety Net Project plays a vital community role that we expect will only increase in urgency. Again giving an example from Social Security, agency estimates are that well over 70% of applicants are unrepresented and documents that those clients without representation are denied benefits over 75% of the time. Without legal representation many truly disabled individuals cannot show their eligibility for the very benefits intended to assist them in their direst need. In contrast, 70% of represented individuals nation-wide win benefits. Helping this population addresses an enormous unmet legal need and provides students a powerful opportunity to advocate for those least able to advocate for themselves. Winning a case for a client means winning not just ongoing monthly income, but also substantial retroactive payments which can be used for improved housing, education, and treatment, and also guarantees access to comprehensive low-cost health insurance. This economic boost stabilizes not just the individual and their families, preventing a deeper slide into poverty, but also acts as an economic stimulus to the communities in which they live. The Safety Net Project will be keeping the well-being of our vulnerable clients in the forefront of any proposed changes to the programs upon which they rely.
In addition to the impact we have through the delivery of direct legal representation, we partner with The Access to Justice (A2J) Lab and Professor James Greiner in measuring outcome in our work so that we and others can leverage objective data on behalf of all vulnerable populations.
Acknowledging that we cannot possibly meet even a portion of the legal needs of our community, The Safety Net Project is proud to partner with the Boston Public Library to present library-based regular community legal education workshops on accessing and using social safety net programs such as SNAP and Social Security as part of the ongoing work of LSC’s People’s Law School.
For information about the Safety Net Project, please contact Julie McCormack at 617-390-2522, or by email at jmccormack[at]law.harvard.edu