Danielle Bernard (left) and Jimmy Hardwick are practicing attorneys with Legal Assistance of Western New York and will be the instructors for the Veterans Law Practicum, starting in fall 2023.

Student veterans help launch Veterans Law Practicum

Patrick George, J.D. ’24, spent 14 years in active duty in the Air Force and a decade in the intelligence community, and saw many of his colleagues struggle to transition between military and civilian life, because they were unaware of supportive benefits available to them, or unable to access benefits because of the circumstances of their discharge.

“My close friend bled blue. He loved the Air Force and would have served for decades, but he was discharged in part due to sexual orientation and it devastated him,” says George, who is a member of Cornell Law Veterans Association. Like many veterans who don’t have the term “honorable” attached to their discharge, George’s friend felt stigmatized and isolated, denied benefits designed to help veterans transition successfully to civilian life, George says.

That’s why George, along with other members of the Cornell Law Veterans Association and Cornell Law School staff, designed a Veterans Law Practicum that will launch in fall 2023. The practicum will enroll 10 upper-class law students each semester who will practice under the supervision of two adjunct professors, both licensed attorneys with backgrounds in disability claims and veterans benefits.

The practicum will also serve as a hub for veterans seeking legal information, advice and representation.“There is a wide gap in legal services available for veterans,” says Michaela K. Rossettie Azemi, Cornell Law School’s director of Pro Bono Services & Externships, who helped design the practicum. “This practicum – and the chance to connect Law School students with solo practitioners who want to help – will narrow the gap and make a real difference.”

The practicum will include a seminar on administrative veterans claims, prioritizing service-related disability claims, benefits appeals and discharge characterization upgrades. The program will receive referrals and support from local partners Legal Assistance of Western New York (LawNY) and the Tompkins County Department of Veterans Services. More than 4,000 veterans live in Tompkins County.

“This is a really specialized area of law and these kinds of cases can take a long time to resolve, which is why the new practicum is going to be of tremendous value,” says Danielle Bernard, a practicing attorney with LawNY and one of the instructors for the practicum. An Air Force veteran, Bernard has seen too many veterans denied the benefits they deserve.

“There’s simply not enough legal representation available,” she says. For example, Tompkins County Veterans Services Center has reported frequent difficulty connecting veterans to legal information, advice and representation for their civil legal needs. “The practicum can start to change that in the short term and the long term by producing more lawyers educated in this area,” Bernard says.

And even if veterans can find a lawyer, they may not be able to afford it. They often earn just above 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which is a requirement for case acceptance at LawNY, but don’t have enough resources to afford to hire a private attorney. The Veterans Law Practicum would aid in narrowing this gap and at the same time, develop a long-term pipeline of lawyers trained and willing to serve veterans in their practice, whether as legal aid attorneys or through pro bono legal work in private practice.

“Our students will get a taste of what it feels like to put their legal skills into practice, working with clients in a trauma-informed, anti-racist, and critical form of advocacy,” says Jimmy Hardwick, a disability attorney who works with Bernard at LawNY and who will co-each the practicum. For example, a discharge upgrade might be necessary for a veteran to receive medical benefits or housing assistance, he says. “Our students will identify the issues and barriers that are preventing people from living their best lives.”

Righting wrongs

People get separated from the military for a lot of reasons, says Josh Roth, J.D. ’24, a U.S. Army veteran, former federal agent and a second year Cornell Law student who is vice president of Veterans Association.

“It could be a positive drug test because the person had a small amount of CBD, but there’s a zero tolerance policy and they’re kicked out,” Roth says. “Sometimes, it’s a failure to adapt because of some behavioral issue that’s the result of a traumatic life event endured during service. Many are denied benefits and their life slowly erodes.”

Roth believes that the practicum can help “right some wrongs” by ensuring that veterans in the community have access to the benefits they’re entitled to. He recalls the case of a woman who endured a sexual assault while she was a reservist but didn’t want to file a criminal complaint. After separating from the military, she was unaware of counseling services available to her as a veteran until Roth helped her.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans with other-than-honorable discharges are seven times more likely to experience homelessness than their honorably discharged peers. Similarly, both low income and disability are significant risk factors for homelessness; that’s why it’s so important for veterans to get the disability and other benefits to which they are entitled.

Logan Kenney, J.D. ’21, was the Veterans Association secretary several years ago, when the seed was planted and the blueprint developed for the practicum. Kenney went on to represent veteran clients who had suffered sexual trauma while serving in the military through Cornell’s Gender Justice Clinic. Today, Kenney works for Willkie Farr & Gallagher and has been able to further develop her interest in veteran-based representation.

“I have such a great respect for people who choose to serve. I am grateful to continue working within this space and hope to help bring about positive change for the military community throughout my career,” says Kenney, who represents hundreds of veterans and Gold Star families in mass torts against Iran and maintains a veteran-focused pro-bono practice.

Since Kenney graduated, the Law School has enrolled more veterans who are now essentially a “critical mass” of advocates. The class of 2024 includes five veterans. “We feel like we have both the responsibility and the momentum,” says George.

He and his fellow veterans/law students are working with admissions to improve the yield rate of veterans who choose Cornell after admission. They send each admitted veteran a “challenge coin” which is normally presented by unit commanders in recognition of a special achievement by a member of the unit.

“We want to see this practicum and its impact get as big as it can be,” says Roth. “The fact is that I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing right now without veterans benefits. I’m here on the GI bill. My disability benefits help support my family. I can devote all my mental and physical energy to my law school studies because of the benefits I’ve received.”

“The veteran community is a reluctant sort,” says Roth. “There’s a stigma against admitting to a disability, going to the doctor or asking for help.” That’s why Roth hopes to see more veterans in the Law School, and more law students who understand the pressures on veterans. “The average law student can decipher the law, but actually connecting with the clientele and being able to speak their language helps them to understand how the law can help them. You don’t have to be a veteran to support veterans and be involved in this work. The fact is that six out of 10 people in this country have some direct connection to the military, which really broadens the impact of a practicum like this.”

There is a great momentum in this nation to narrow the military/civilian divide and the practicum can help do that, says George.

“We can and should give new meaning to the phrase ‘Thank you for your service’ by ensuring that those who serve their country receive the services that recognize their contributions and restore their humanity, their honor and their dignity.”

Eileen Korey is a freelance writer for Cornell Law School.

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