George Mason University law student Garrett Van Pelt, an Army veteran and reservist, is celebrating his birthday on this year’s Veterans Day by doing pro bono legal work for other veterans and service members.
Van Pelt and seven other law students are earning credit through work at GMU’s Clinic for Legal Assistance to Servicemembers and Veterans. He is on track to graduate in December, barring an unanticipated deployment.
George Mason boasts a large number of students who have served in the military. "We kind of bend over backwards to accommodate" the needs of those students, explained Laurie Forbes Neff, the clinic’s director, in an interview.
The clinic has conducted more than $1 million in pro-bono legal work for veterans and service members.
Like other law school clinics, George Mason’s aims to give students both class credit and courtroom experience.
Neff, a Marine who served during the Gulf War, says she is "contributing on two different levels: on the practical level with the law students, and giving back to our service members and veterans who I feel deserve a little extra helping hand on occasion."
The clinic received official blessings from all five of the branches of the military, and their Judge Advocate General offices frequently provide referrals.
The majority of the clinic’s legal work focuses on family issues. Van Pelt said he is currently working on an uncontested divorce and a step-parent adoption. He is also helping to sort out a contract dispute and a landlord-tenant case.
"We wish we could help more people, but it really is a manpower issue," Neff said. "That’s one of our hopes: that some day we will have enough money that we can take on the family law issues and be able to handle more than we’re able to right now."
The clinic is almost entirely supported through the law school’s general budget. It has received some contributions from private law firms and corporations. It used to receive some funding from the Pentagon, Neff said, "but that well has completely dried up."
Between 20 and 22 students work at the clinic each year. They receive two credits (GMU classes range from two to four), making it, Van Pelt says, "the most time-intensive class I’ve taken, by far."
For its students, the clinic’s benefits lie as much in the practical experience it affords and its service component than the two credits it provides.
"I’m still in the Army Reserve so it’s nice to be able to help soldiers," Van Pelt said. "I’ll be graduating already having trial experience. … Hopefully that translates into job offers."
He said he is looking into positions both in the Army JAG corps and in the private sector.
"I have trouble getting rid of them," Neff said of her students. "They want to stay on and continue to help after they graduate. They want to continue their cases and see them through to the end."
The clinic’s success stories are plentiful, Neff said, but attorney-client confidentiality prevents her from touting many of them publicly.
She was able to recount some recent cases, however. The clinic recently helped a World War II veteran who was mistakenly being hounded by debt collectors. A combat-wounded Iraq War veteran had his driver’s license suspended, and the clinic was able to resolve his problems.
"We had a very severely wounded army Staff Sgt. who had PTSD and the military did not find his condition ‘unfitting’," Neff recalled. "We were able to convince them through some very persuasive writings that this condition should be found unfitting based on his medical records."
Many veterans, she explained, can obtain legal services through the military’s official legal assistance offices. "They can be very effective," Neff said, but many attorneys in those offices are not licensed to practice law in the states where they are stationed, and hence cannot appear in court.
GMU’s clinic provides that essential service, though only in Northern Virginia, where most of the school’s attorneys are licensed.
"I would love to expand it," Neff said. "It’s a matter of funding at this point."