When I first attended St. Mary’s School of Law, at one of our orientation sessions, the PowerPoint Presentation contained a word cloud created by law students with words they associated with pro bono service. A word cloud will make those most frequently cited words bigger than those less often used. In that cloud, one word stuck out to me, veterans. How big was that word? No more than about a 22pt. font. As the son of a 100 percent disabled Air Force veteran, I know the struggles that military members face at home and abroad. Although I knew I wanted to work with veterans before I entered law school, the slide I viewed that day in 2021 solidified my interest in expanding legal services for veterans.
The Moody Fellowship and Externship Program are two options that provide students a benefit (earning a stipend through the Fellowship and academic credit through the Externship Program) while they gain invaluable experience in Veterans Law. At SALSA, students can expect to focus primarily in areas such as expunctions, discharge upgrades, debt management cases, and veterans disability appeals. Not only can a fellow and/or an extern expect to learn substantive law in these areas, students will also learn what it truly means to be an advocate through interaction with veteran clients.
Students interact periodically with their assigned clients to answer any questions that may arise during the legal process. However, most of our client intake comes from the clinic we host on the second Friday of every month. During the clinic, students can expect to identify legal issues, meet with practicing attorneys, and in cases involving veterans’ specific legal issues, prepare the client for the process of extended representation. During these clinics, students will have the opportunity to improve many of the soft skills necessary for successful advocacy in their careers as lawyers.
One of the most important aspects of my work with SALSA is that we often work with veterans in appealing initially denied claims. Thus, the cases we work with often all involve a common characteristic; the veteran sought to invoke their legal rights and were often wrongfully rejected. As Former Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy once said in a letter to the Virginia State Bar:
“The glory of justice and the majesty of law are created not just by the Constitution – nor by the courts – nor by the officers of the law – nor by the lawyers – but by the men and women who constitute our society – who are the protectors of the law as they are themselves protected by the law.
Unfortunately, many of these initial claims lose because the veterans who filed those claims never had someone to advocate for them. Whether we are working to solve the barriers that prevent veterans from finding a career, or fighting for the benefits they earned during their service, the legal work an extern and/or fellow can expect to perform will be fulfilling both personally and academically.