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Case Study #19: Fixing Legal Troubles at Low Cost

Connecticut supporters give vets a center for help with the law

“I’m facing eviction because my truck broke down and it was literally either fix my truck, which is the thing that gets me to work, or I could pay my rent. So I fixed my truck, and I’ve been going to work, but I missed half my rent last month and my landlord has served me a notice of eviction and I can’t go back to being homeless because I can’t do that to my daughter again.”

That was the predicament of an Iraq-war veteran and single mother with a four-year-old daughter who became a client of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC). “A V.A. clinician put her in touch with us,” says Margaret Middleton, CVLC’s executive director, “so we connected this veteran with a volunteer attorney who had not done a landlord-tenant case before but who said, ‘I’m a litigator, we’ll be alright.’” The attorney negotiated a repayment plan with the landlord in which the veteran repaid a small portion of her back rent each month until the debt was cleared. In the end, Middleton concludes, “It wasn’t a ton of work for the volunteer attorney, it wasn’t a ton of work for us, and as a team, we prevented this veteran and her daughter from becoming homeless.”

While not every case is quite so picture-perfect, this one showcases much of what makes CVLC tick—recruiting volunteer attorneys from across the state, forming a strong referral relationship with the V.A., and quickly addressing a broad range of practical legal issues that can complicate the reintegration of veterans into civilian society. Founded in late 2009, the nonprofit organization is built on pro bono services donated by lawyers, with administrative funding from local family and community foundations. It has so far opened more than 822 cases on behalf of about 600 clients. According to Middleton, there is much more work to be done.

Legal Problems among Veterans

In the realm of services for veterans, recognizing and removing legal obstacles has rarely been a top priority. Even lawyers willing to help have often been frustrated in their efforts to make useful volunteer connections to needy clients. By the time CVLC was founded, the Connecticut Bar Association had been trying to start a veterans project for several years, but could never find the veterans they aimed to serve. Sustained by philanthropic support from over a dozen Connecticut law firms, as well as family and community foundations, CVLC tried something different—going to the places where veterans congregate. Now that the project is up and running, Middleton reports, “we’re awash in veterans. We have way more demand than we can serve.”

While CVLC is not a government office, it is co-located and well-synchronized with the V.A.’s Errera Community Care Center in West Haven, where veterans access counseling resources, receive substance abuse treatment, obtain housing help, and other services. CVLC’s mission is to “help veterans overcome legal barriers to housing, health care, and income,” often serving as the connective tissue between other parts of the recovery of veterans who have run into trouble. Middleton explains:

Legal problems are barriers to recovery, so folks who are trying to establish sobriety, be faithful to their treatment plans, trying to maintain housing, sometimes run into legal problems they can’t resolve on their own. There are other legal services in V.A. facilities, but we are built into the fabric, and we’re proving that clinicians, veterans, and lawyers can work together without violating patient or client confidentiality. It’s beneficial to the veterans and the clinicians love having us here—when their client asks them a question, they have someone they can direct them to.

The West Haven V.A. recognizes the value of CVLC’s work and provides it with some in-kind support. “The government provides us with space, wi-fi, phones, copy machines, and security. If we were a storefront, our clients would have a harder time reaching us and we wouldn’t get the benefits of working with their clinicians.” By working on-site in partnership with V.A. services, CVLC has been able to help more veterans in more ways than most other legal services programs.

Middleton says the organization particularly zeroed in on hard cases—“veterans who are recovering from homelessness and serious mental illness.” Their single largest legal need is for help navigating V.A. benefits, but other issues such as family law, housing law, discharge upgrades, administrative pardons, and identity theft make up significant portions of the CVLC caseload.

Among Iraq-Afghanistan veterans—who constitute about 20 percent of the total clients of this charity—the single largest area of need is in family law. “A lot of these are young people with young kids, and military service is incredibly straining on family life. There are a lot of issues with child support and custody.”

Lawyering for the Greater Good

Working out of a single 150 square-foot office at the West Haven V.A. with two staff attorneys, one paralegal, and an AmeriCorps fellow, CVLC has served more than 600 clients in less than four years. In 2012 alone, the group opened 400 new cases. Unable to handle the flow of work on their own, the group farms its cases out to a network of about 238 volunteer attorneys, paralegals, and law students around the state of Connecticut who take on the cases pro bono.

CVLC doesn’t just hand cases off; they match needs with attorneys, and remain actively involved in cases right through case resolution. All told, it costs the organization an average of $450 to complete an entire case—the rate some private attorneys charge for just one hour of time. And the client never pays a dime for CVLC’s services. In the latest year alone, the estimated value of billable time donated by the organization’s volunteer attorneys surpassed $400,000, more than twice CVLC’s cash budget for that same time period.

CVLC delivers this value by recruiting volunteer lawyers from a wide variety of firms, law schools, corporations, and practices around the state. In conjunction with Yale Law School just up the road from CVLC, Middleton runs regular training sessions for these attorneys, who are often new to working with veterans, and to the particular practice areas, where their legal needs tend to be concentrated. While some issue areas, such as family law and certain V.A. benefits appeals, require specialized experience, most do not.

In many cases, Middleton explains, CVLC “is tapping into their innate talent as lawyers to overcome fairly routine stuff. We work with a lot of corporate lawyers—at Sikorsky, at GE—doing pardons. These are great projects for in-house counsel because they are largely paper processes that don’t require repeated court appearances, and they’re not intensely technical. They’re mostly about helping a veteran tell a story of growth, healing, and redemption.”

n addition to putting volunteerism among practicing attorneys to good use, CVLC also taps into a pool of talented students training to be lawyers. About a year after Middleton founded CVLC, Mike Wishnie, a professor at Yale Law School, started a legal clinic at his school as a way to teach his students, provide them with real experience in litigation and advocacy, and help a population in need in the local community. He quickly made common cause with Middleton, who now helps supervise the students in the clinic and offers referrals. She is a “source of expertise, and students consult with her constantly,” says Wishnie.

Teaching Courts to Serve Veterans

Outside of directly serving clients on individual cases, CVLC has also had a constructive influence in the Connecticut courts system on behalf of veterans. Since they were first piloted in Buffalo, New York, in 2008, specialized courts for veterans that provide treatment alternatives to incarceration for individuals facing criminal charges have proliferated around the country. So-called Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs) bring together drug-treatment programs, mental-health providers, community agencies, corrections offices, and the V.A. to rehabilitate veterans. By many accounts, they have worked well where established in law.

Over the last year, the estimated value of billable time donated by CVLC’s volunteer attorneys was more than twice its cash budget.

But these new freestanding courts cost local governments money to set up, so they do not exist in every jurisdiction. For years, advocates for veterans and Linda Schwartz, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs, tried to establish a VTC in their state. But they were never able to overcome political, budgetary, and bureaucratic obstacles.

So in 2011, Middleton asked some of the students she was working with at the Yale Law School clinic for veterans to research practical options for bringing a VTC to Connecticut. After several months of work the students came back and suggested: “Let’s go to the legislature and just work with existing programs; not create something new, but tweak them.” Wishnie explains that “pre-trial diversionary programs” already operate in Connecticut, and “are successful, and save the state money because it’s cheaper to treat someone than incarcerate them. But they all have various limitations.” In early 2012, CVLC retained the law school clinic as legislative counsel, and the students, under Wishnie’s supervision, wrote what would become S.B. 114, a bill that modified an existing statute to make pre-trial treatment opportunities available to veterans, where in the past only defendants with psychiatric disabilities had been eligible.

By expanding the access of veterans to treatment courts, CVLC also helped reduce future barriers to employment. “A lot of vets coming back want to be police officers, want to work in security, they want to maintain a security clearance.” For this to remain possible, it was helpful for veterans with substance-abuse problems to be able to get connected to care without resorting to the old law’s requirement that one demonstrate a psychiatric disability.

The bill was passed into law in May 2012. Unlike VTCs, which are by definition new courts, S.B. 114 expanded access for veterans throughout the state of Connecticut to existing pre-trial diversionary programs. Middleton elaborates, “It’s a very different model than what you’re seeing in most places that are creating veterans courts. Philosophically we prefer Connecticut’s law, because it creates the potential for every court to be a veterans court. Every judge, every prosecutor, every defense attorney has the opportunity to say ‘this person is a veteran and because of their service we’re going to make sure they get every opportunity to receive treatment.’” Because the programs have been around for years, judges around the state already have some familiarity with them and are simply applying them to a new population.

Doing a Lot with a Little

When CVLC solves a legal problem for a veteran, it also often plays a supporting role in encouraging other successful outcomes like getting a job and finding housing. One of CVLC’s biggest donors is the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. Its director, William Ginsberg, describes the organization as “a very important program. They’re doing very good work; and they’re doing it in ways that leverage our dollars hugely with volunteers, and with the work of the V.A. hospital in West Haven.”

Wishnie concurs: “It would be great if there were more CVLCs—either as small, free-standing legal services offices, or as programs of existing legal clinics. When philanthropically financed lawyers are doing cases, or intelligently matching cases to pro bono lawyers, and working with local law-school clinics, then you’re leveraging a lot of resources for a fairly small budget.”

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