Raising the Bar in Veteran Legal Services

Bob Woodruff Foundation helps start the proceedings

By Katherine Cook, Bob Woodruff Foundation

Last week, the American Bar Association and Army One Source helped organize a coalition of legal providers, experts, and stakeholders who came to Washington, D.C., from across the country to lay the groundwork for the creation of a National Military and Veteran Legal Services Network.

Caregivers, veterans and leaders in the nonprofit space, along with professionals from health and human services, law, and the military lent their expertise and guidance to the discussion.

“Military service can unintentionally tilt the scales of justice against those who serve and their families,” said Jack Rives, executive director, American Bar Association.

The Bob Woodruff Foundation sponsored the summit in the hopes that the network will ultimately serve to increase connectivity in administrative, civil, and criminal law at local, state, and national levels.

The summit was hosted at the offices of the prestigious Jones Day law firm. Opening remarks came from Linda Klein, president-elect of the American Bar Association and Matthew Stiner, director of Veterans & Military Affairs for the White House.

Day 1 of the Military and Veterans Legal Services Network Summit

Interdisciplinary work teams kicked off the summit by identifying and prioritizing gaps and strengths in the current legal system, defining the capabilities and capacity currently available and what additional ones must be developed so that services can be provided and accessed.

Teams agreed it was critical that the network offers comprehensive, holistic services. The goal is that the network will serve stakeholders of all ages, in all locales, with all range of needs. Summit participants also stressed the importance of collaboration between service providers so that everyone who reaches out for legal assistance can be directed appropriately, whether their issue has a legal solution or otherwise.

No more “dead ends” — case management will need to be a priority as the network is developed.

During a short break, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, founder of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, addressed the group. She offered a reminder of the power of caregivers in the long-term success of an injured service member. The “emotional weight” carried by caregivers is often coupled with difficulty navigating complicated legal issues. Acknowledging the caregiver role while building this legal services network should be as important as honoring the experience of their loved ones who have served.

“How overwhelming to be thrust into such a role, suddenly making stressful legal decisions — often matters of life and death. Just think of the relief and peace of mind we could produce with a network of legal organizations and experts who understand their challenges and are ready to offer support,” said Dole.
Sen. Elizabeth Dole

Military Spouse JD Network offered their services to capture the conversation. There was a big focus on not recreating the wheel — making sure that if a need is being met, resources should be applied to raising awareness of the quality services that already exist.

Building the network upwards, from the local providers on the ground that understand their constituencies’ needs, up to state and national levels, will help ensure that each community is adequately represented.

Drawing a comparison to education reform, the goal is not to build the best school system, but the best system of schools. Several participants used web-based services such as Stateside Legal and Law Help NY as examples to follow.

The summit was a starting point. Of course, to have a meaningful impact on the service members and families it aims to serve, time has to be invested in turning good ideas into actionable opportunities. Summit participants have fought, and will continue to fight, to affect real change in their communities. Together, we can bring about that change on a national scale.

The American Bar Association will be releasing a summary report of the conclusions from this summit.