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 working in a particular project. This page is about the Veterans Justice Project. Please scroll down to learn more.
About the Work of the Veterans Justice Project
The Veterans Justice Project serves veterans (and their survivors) who are marginalized and who would otherwise go without legal representation. We prioritize advocating for individuals with mental health conditions, Military Sexual Trauma survivors, veterans who experienced discrimination during their military service, whether on account of race, gender, LGBTQI+ status, or other identity-based discrimination, and formerly incarcerated individuals.
Students in the Clinic engage in hands-on lawyering and work with their own clients. Through clinical practice, students learn skills such as client and witness interviewing; client counseling; working with medical experts; gathering evidence; drafting pleadings, motions, briefs, and legal instruments; presenting at evidentiary hearings or oral argument; engaging in negotiation; developing strategic litigation strategies; and solving ethical dilemmas. In representing individual clients, students have opportunities to engage in systemic reform initiatives, such as through strategic litigation and policy advocacy, to improve the lives of veterans and military families.
A Clinic client during his deployment.
Many of our clients comes to us when they lack permanent housing or face imminent homelessness. Many have serious health issues, whether physical or mental health or both. Some clients are older and their military service ended decades ago. Others are younger and have returned from recent overseas deployments. About 20% of our clients are women veterans. Clinic students have frequent opportunities to interact with their clients. In addition, students often have opportunities to work with medical and psychological experts and to work on cases at the intersection of mental health and the law.
Our docket includes four main components:
(1) Administrative and Court Litigation against VA: We represent veterans and family members in administrative and court appeals to challenge denials of federal veterans benefits–whether denials of disability benefits, healthcare, educational and vocational supports, or other life necessities. Students in the Clinic regularly practice before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. For examples of students’ advocacy at the Court, please see here and here.
(2) Administrative and Court Litigation Involving Massachusetts Veterans Benefits: We represent veterans and family members who have been unlawfully denied state-funded Massachusetts veterans benefits. These cases provide opportunities for students to represent clients in evidentiary hearings, argument on motions, brief writing, and state appellate practice. More about Massachusetts veterans benefits–and appellate rights–can be found at the Massachusetts Veterans Benefit Calculator, which is a website launched and maintained by the Veterans Justice Project. For examples of students’ work on state benefit appeals, please see here and here.
(3) Military Discharge Upgrades: We represent veterans who were wrongfully discharged from the military and unjustly received a less-than-honorable discharge or other adverse determination that has robbed them of dignity and denied them post-discharge opportunities to access life-sustaining financial benefits, healthcare, housing, and employment. We represent such veterans before U.S. Department of Defense tribunals and in federal court in order to obtain military discharge upgrades and other forms of relief–which, if successful, can be life transforming for the veteran. Many of the veterans we represent in these cases experienced the invisible wounds of war (PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury), are survivors of combat-related trauma and/or Military Sexual Trauma, and/or were discharged from the military based on discriminatory policies or practices. For examples of our work in this area, see here and here.
(4) Policy Advocacy: We also pursue systemic reforms through policy advocacy, whether via legislation or agency-level efforts. Our policy advocacy work takes place at both the federal and state levels. For examples of our policy advocacy work, please see here, here, here, and here.
No matter the case type or procedural posture, students–under thoughtful attorney supervision and mentorship–take the reins of their cases and act as lead counsel.
A Window into one Clinic Student’s Work with his Client
We encourage you to click here to learn more about our docket in the Veterans Justice Project.
For more information about the Clinic or to ask questions, please email Clinical Professor and Clinic Director Daniel Nagin at dnagin[at]law.harvard.edu.