pro bono

Legal Services Center Launches Veterans Justice Pro Bono Partnership

BBA Representing Veterans Training

Dana Montalto, Daniel Nagin, Dr. Sandy Dixon, Betsy Gwin, and Major Susan Lynch present to attorneys about representing less-than-honorably discharged veterans.

On Tuesday, June 2, the Veterans Legal Clinic of the Legal Services Center launched the Veterans Justice Pro Bono Partnership. Through the program, the clinic will refer cases, offer trainings, and provide ongoing support to local attorneys who agree to provide pro bono representation to veterans discharged less-than-honorably in petitions to upgrade their discharge statuses. Having a less-than-honorable discharge can prevent a former servicemember from accessing care and treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs and impede efforts toward stable employment, education, and housing.

The Partnership kicked off with a half-day training at the Boston Bar Association, where attorneys learned about military law and culture, the review boards, and service-related medical diagnoses and treatment, among other topics. In addition to Veterans Legal Clinic attorneys Daniel Nagin, Betsy Gwin, and Dana Montalto, presenters included Susan Lynch, an attorney and Major in the Judge Advocate General Corps of the U.S. Army Reserves, and Dr. Sandra Dixon, a core faculty member of William James College who teaches about trauma and meeting the needs of returning veterans. In attendance were more than two dozen attorneys, including solo practitioners, public-interest lawyers, and members of some of Boston’s leading law firms.

Hundreds of thousands of servicemembers were separated with less-than-fully-Honorable discharges in the past decades, including more than 200,000 in the Post-9/11 Era. Despite the availability of a legal remedy and a demand for legal assistance, very few attorneys offer representation to former servicemembers before the records correction boards and even fewer provide pro bono representation to low-income veterans. The mission of the Veterans Justice Pro Bono Partnership is to close that gap by providing attorneys interested in assisting those who have worn the uniform with the skills and resources necessary to represent them.

Attorneys who are interested in joining the Veterans Justice Pro Bono Partnership should contact Dana Montalto at dmontalto[at]law.harvard.edu.

Family Law Clinic Student Advocates for Survivor of Domestic Violence

Akhila Kolisetty

Akhila Kolisetty

by Akhila Kolisetty, J.D. ’15, Harvard Law School

As I sat in the courtroom with my client, waiting for the judge to call us for a pre-trial hearing, we saw my client’s abusive husband enter the room. Immediately, she became nervous and tense. In that moment – as she started tearing up and remembering the past abuse he had put her through – I saw the impact that a lawyer and advocate can make in the lives of survivors of domestic violence. I listened to my client’s needs, reassured her that she would be safe, and that we would achieve the best possible outcome in her divorce case.

A few minutes after this conversation, I had the chance to present the key issues in the case before a family court judge. In my opening statement, I detailed the history of abuse my client had gone through. I explained why she deserved custody of her children, why she should reside in the marital home, and receive child support. Through discovery, I had gathered evidence of a substantial sum of money that my client should have received during the marriage, so I also argued why she deserved a portion of those assets. The judge was sympathetic to our requests and gave us more time to collect critical evidence needed before a trial. I left feeling that the case would have a positive outcome, and my client left feeling a sense of hope for the future.

The experience of representing low-income survivors of domestic violence was an incredible one. I had come to law school with a deep interest in improving my ability to advocate for survivors of domestic abuse. Prior to law school, I had volunteered as an advocate providing peer support to immigrant survivors of violence but often felt that I lacked the capacity to fully advocate for them. The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic helped me pair empathy with crucial skills in negotiation, oral advocacy and legal writing, to be a much stronger advocate for clients. I not only learned to represent clients in pre-trial hearings, but also conducted discovery, helped clients file for divorce, and advised them on their options. Throughout this process, I received helpful feedback that concretely improved my skills.

Many survivors of domestic violence are immigrants and low-income; they have difficulty navigating the court system and lack the finances to hire a lawyer. Furthermore, abusers often appear confident in court, while survivors of abuse feel intimidated when required to speak in court alongside their abusive partners. Lawyers in family law cases can help survivors of abuse advocate for themselves and ensure that they obtain the financial resources and the independence they need in order to move forward and thrive. Lawyers can also simply listen to difficult stories, acknowledge past abuse, and serve as a support system.

The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic helped me develop vital skills needed to become such a lawyer and advocate, while also providing a needed service to a vulnerable population. I cannot think of a better experience to have as a law student.

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This piece was originally posted on the Harvard Law School Clinical and Pro Bono Programs blog.