Safety Net Project formerly Disability Litigation and Benefits Advocacy Clinic

Ensuring Veterans Aren’t Left Behind

Steven Kerns, 2L at Harvard Law School

As a veteran, I came to Harvard Law School’s Safety Net Project within the Veteran’s Legal Clinic to help bridge the civilian- military divide. SNP offered me a chance to help civilians and veterans realize some part of the American dream.

The veterans’ clinic serves civilians and veterans alike, and the SNP provides civilians and veterans with guidance through the Social Security, SNAP, Medicaid, and poverty prevention processes. We serve a strong legal need: Nearly 70 percent of Social Security applicants have no legal representation.

As a student, the clinic offered me a pathway to maintain the momentum I’d built up establishing my litigation skills in my summer at the California Attorney General’s office. The SNP gives me full responsibility for my cases: preparing an evidentiary record, interviewing clients, writing a legal brief, delivering oral argument, direct questioning of clients, cross-examining experts, and if a case is denied, preparing for the appellate argument.

A veteran recently told me that our team had changed his life. He was fond of saying that if it weren’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. He was falsely imprisoned, sexually assaulted as a child, and tragically self-aware of all of it.

Most painful was his nobility, his gentle demeanor, and his broken strength. He blamed no one. He accepted responsibility for more than just his actions—he accepted responsibility for the world. The military has a way of conditioning many of us not to seek help until it’s too late, to shoulder the blame for circumstances beyond our control— to grin and bear it. It’s our strength in war and, often, our undoing at home.

After combing through more than 500 pages of medical records and recruiting mental health experts to evaluate the long history of impairments and treatment, I put together a written argument that led the administrative law judge to make a decision on the record—telling us on the day of the hearing that he was approving the case for more than eight years of retroactive benefits. This highly unusual move happens only when the ALJ determines the case is clearly in the applicant’s favor and a hearing is no longer necessary.

Our client was spared having to dive deep into his trauma for the record. Realizing this, he was overcome with relief. And while we all shared a brief moment of joy, that veteran’s need is no less important than helping the civilians who walk through our doors. Our communities thrive together.

As President Eisenhower noted in his seminal Cross of Iron speech, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.”

I may not be able to change the status quo, but the SNP empowers me to help Americans left behind by perpetual war. Here, they’re not forgotten. Here, my mission is no different than it was in the Army: to serve the American people.

By: Steve Kerns, J.D. ’20

Excerpt from “Law Students Speak: Why I Do Public Interest Work

Via the American Bar Association for Law Students 

LSC Alum Leading the Way for People with Disabilities

Haben Girma, a Harvard Law School alum and alum of LSC’s Disability Litigation Unit (now the Safety Net Project) , is featured on the cover of the September issue of the American Bar Association Journal for her consulting and public speaking work encouraging companies to hire people with disabilities and to develop fully accessible products and services. Girma has worked with organizations ranging from Apple and Google to Pearson Education and the American Alliance of Museums.

Before going into consulting, this former Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom fellow practiced litigation for more than two years with the nonprofit organization Disability Rights Advocates.

Girma is a first-generation immigrant who has both limited hearing and vision and refers to herself as “Deafblind.” She was named one of the ABA Journal’s Legal Rebels.

Learn more

LSC Students Present Oral Argument in Federal District Court

In a recent post on the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs’ Blog, students Emily Seelenfreund, J.D. ’17 and Myra Siddiqui,  J.D. ’17, discuss their experiences working in the Disability Litigation and Advocacy Clinic coordinated by Senior Clinical Instructor, Julie McCormack. Specifically, they express that “perhaps the most exciting part of our semester was the opportunity to represent a woman with multiple disabilities” which included presenting an oral argument before the U. S. District Court in Boston.

Read the complete post here.

Clinic students present legal workshops for veterans

LSC clinic student, Carys Johnson, presents to veterans about estate planning

LSC clinic student, Carys Johnson, presents to veterans about estate planning

On Monday, November 9, 2015, the Legal Services Center opened its doors to veterans from our community to serve dinner and provide a series of legal workshops on a range of topics relevant to veterans.  Twelve Harvard Law students from the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic presented legal information and tips to attendees about estate planning, Ch. 115 state veterans benefits, VA benefits, and Social Security benefits.  Approximately 30 local veterans and family members attended the event.

Rebecca Rattner, a second-year student in the clinic, worked with her fellow students to present about benefits available to veterans at the state level.

“I thought it was a really useful activity to engage the community and provide them with information about their rights and practical suggestions for how to advocate for themselves,”

Ms. Rattner said.

Staff from Boston and Bedford VA healthcare facilities helped to coordinate the event.

Peoples Law School at LSCThe event was part of a series of community legal education events known as the Peoples Law School, through which LSC staff and students periodically present legal workshops to community members.  The next Peoples Law School event will be held in Spring 2016.  For more details, you can contact us by email.


The Legal Services Center takes People’s Law School on the road in service to veterans


LSC’s Julie McCormack (Dis-Lit) and Dana Montalto (Vet) with VA Bedford Compensated Work Therapy staff Will Hatley and Mary Lee Losordo after their presentation on November 5th.

The now annual Legal Services Center (LSC) People’s Law School of community legal education workshops facilitated by LSC staff and clinical law students has proven to be hugely popular, attended by almost 200 people over the past 2 years.  And so popular that Will Hatley, Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) Program Coordinator at the Bedford Veterans Administration (VA) proposed that LSC take the program on the road, bringing workshops specifically tailored to the needs of the veterans served through the CWT program directly to them on-site at the Bedford VA.  Julie McCormack, senior clinical instructor and director of the Disability Litigation Clinic at LSC, enthusiastically accepted the challenge and recruited not only LSC instructors and clinical students in presenting workshops, but also reached out to recruit presenters in areas not served by LSC.  She and her LSC colleagues were ultimately joined by instructors and law students from the Tenant Advocacy Project and Prisoner Legal Assistance Project student practice organizations and the Judicial Process in Community Courts Clinic.

Over the course of several weeks and 5 workshops, veterans and their case managers at the Bedford VA were advised of their legal rights and the process by which these rights could be exercised in several key areas of direct impact.  On October 29th, Toby Merrill and her student Alison Sher ‘15 from the LSC’s Project on Predatory Student Lending presented first on credit issues including bankruptcy and predatory student loans, many of which are specifically marketed to veterans.  Toby and Ali discussed the means by which these unfair loans can be challenged, discharged or otherwise eliminated.

On November 5th, Julie McCormack presented on Social Security disability programs, other programs for low-income and/or disabled veterans and their families, and the financial implications in these programs of wages and other forms of income and how to respond.  Dana Montalto of LSC’s Veteran’s Legal Clinic presented on Discharge Upgrades, the benefits of upgrading and the process by which an upgrade can be requested.  Julie also met with veterans privately, responding to individual questions and providing advice and follow-up in their individual cases.

va peoples law school fam law clinic

LSC’s Nnena Odim and Stephanie Davidson with Family Law clinical students Isabel Klosterman ’16 and Mara Ludmer ’15 after their presentation on November 12th.

On November 12th, Nnena Odim and Stephanie Davidson of LSC’s Family Law Clinic, their clinical students Isabel Klosterman ’16 and Mara Ludmer ’15, and Tamara Kolz Griffin of the Estate Planning Project of LSC’s Veteran’s Legal Clinic, and her student, Hillary Preston ’15, presented on family law and probate court issues, including divorce, child custody and child support, separations, restraining orders, conservatorships, guardianships and probating estates.  Tamara Kolz Griffin and her clinical students, Amanda Klopp ’16 and Carolyn Ruiz ’16, from the Estate Planning Project of the Veteran’s Legal Clinic followed up on November 13th with a workshop specifically dealing with wills, trusts and other estate planning tools helpful to veterans and their families, and met one-on-one with several prospective clients on their individual cases.

Finally, on November 19th, the Hon. John Cratsley (ret.) of HLS’s Judicial Process in Community Courts Clinic and David Hanyok ’15 (with HLS’s Prison Legal Assistance Project) presented on criminal record sealing and other issues.  Both handled a variety of questions from veterans as well as program staff and met one-on-one with veterans interested in discussing their record sealing options, providing forms for obtaining a CORI, for fee waivers, and for applying to seal a record. They also answered numerous questions which sometimes raised other criminal justice issues of concern to veterans.  Their session was followed by Marcia Peters of HLS’s Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) and Zoe Brennan-Krohn ‘15 (of both TAP and LSC’s Disability Litigation Clinic) who presented on the process to appeal public housing denials based solely on having a criminal record.  They took on similar challenging questions.

Each of the workshops were attended by 30 to 50 veterans and case managers.  The attendees participated eagerly with questions and personal observations, sharing knowledge and experiences.  Will Hatley generously recognized each of the presenters with personal certificates of appreciation.  He and many of the attendees urged that the workshops be repeated and even expanded in the spring, pointing to the obvious need for this kind of community legal education among folks facing complex legal, social and personal challenges as they transition from military service to civilian life.  And although taking the time from clinical teaching and providing services to current clients and students presents resource and other constraints, LSC and their partners are more than willing to try to answer the call.

Diversity and Disability: How Disability Fits in to the Campus-wide Dialogue About Diversity

L-R: Susan Lang, Michael Stein, Julie McCormack, Tiffany Yu, and Elisa Dun.

L-R: Susan Lang, Michael Stein, Julie McCormack, Tiffany Yu, and Elisa Dun.

Julie McCormack, Director and Senior Clinical Instructor in the Disability Litigation and Benefits Advocacy Clinic, participated in a robust discussion on April 11th at Harvard Law School on “Diversity & Disability: How Disability Fits in to the Campus-wide Dialogue About Diversity.” Over seventy people attended the event which also included speakers Susan Lang, President and CEO of Lime Connect; Michael Stein, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability; Tiffany Yu, Founder of Georgetown University’s DiversAbility Group; and Elisa Dun, J.D. ’15, Harvard Law School.

The panel was co-sponsored by HL Central, the Student Mental Health Association (SMHA), and the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), and organized by Elisa Dun, who put the panel together through funds she received after winning this year’s TJ Duane Grant competition.

Read more about the event in the Harvard Law Record story.

Precedent-setting Decision in Favor of a Veteran

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims made a precedent-setting decision in favor of a veteran in a case argued by the Veterans Legal Clinic. More information about the case is available here.  Staff and students from the Veterans Legal Clinic argued the case on behalf of the veteran. For additional news coverage see the CNN article and Harvard Gazette article.