Military service members and their families often face many personal challenges as the result of their deployment or service in the military, including legal problems. In response to these difficulties, Mason’s School of Law established the Clinic for Legal Assistance to Servicemembers and Veterans (CLASV).
After September 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the school wanted to find a way to help members of the military community since many students and alumni were affected by their service.
“The clinic is an opportunity to give back to those who give so much while giving Mason law students a glimpse of real-life practice,” says Mason law professor Laurie Neff, director of the clinic.
Neff says there is a great need for these services because legal representation can be quite expensive and there aren’t many legal aid services that address the special needs of service members and veterans.
Mason law students participate in the clinic through a 2-credit course, LAW 309, where they gain practical, hands-on experience related to client intake, interviewing, counseling, negotiation, and case preparation. In addition, Neff provides classroom lectures related to legal ethics, military history, structure of the armed forces, and laws that specifically affect military members. She also brings in guest speakers, such as military lawyers and psychologists, from nearby military bases such as Marine Corps Base Quantico.
“Military rank and culture are relevant to a lot of the cases we address, and we spend time in class talking about why these things are important,” Neff says.
Eighty-five students have participated in the clinic, which has directly served more than 100 clients from all five branches of the armed services. This year, the clinic has taken on 14 cases. Each student handles an average of three cases, depending on their complexity. In addition, the clinic has provided hundreds of referrals to legal aid organizations for cases that the clinic does not address.
“There are so many unique legal issues in the military community, and this is an experience I never would have received in an externship or internship,” says Lindsay Lennon, a third-year law student who is participating in the clinic for the second semester.
“As soon as registration opened, it was the first class I signed up for this semester. I didn’t want to stop doing the work, and I’ll miss it when I graduate,” says Lennon, who will be taking a position with the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services after graduating in May 2012.
Neff says that her approach is to manage the clinic “like a small law firm” within the law school. CLASV primarily addresses civil legal cases but selects clients on a case-by-case basis, with consideration to the resources they have on hand. Common cases include local landlord-tenant and contract issues because of the transient nature of service members affected by deployment. The clinic also assists veterans across the country in applying for state and federal benefits.
The clinic was founded in 2004 under the direction of Mason law professor Joseph Zengerle, who retired in 2011 and now serves as an advisor.
Neff took over as director of the clinic in July 2011, after serving as senior assistant director for the School of Law’s Career Services Office. She grew up in a military family and served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the first Gulf War. Neff retains many ties with the military community and says these connections have been extremely valuable in her current role.
Prior to joining the law school, Neff practiced at the law firms McGuireWoods LLP in Tysons Corner and Wolcott Rivers Gates in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She remains a member of the Virginia Bar.
The clinic relies on supervising attorneys from the legal community, often Mason alumni, to help students through the cases.
Luke Nichols, JD ’09, recently served as a supervising attorney on a moving violation traffic case. His firm, Nichols + Green, specializes in traffic cases in Northern Virginia.
“Military deployment can cause logistical issues as the result of being abroad, and that was the case with our client,” Nichols says.
As supervising attorney, Nichols met several times with the client and the student handling the case, in addition to appearing in court.
“The students handled interactions with the client, and my role was to help point them in the right direction and bring up some legal issues related to the case,” he says.
Nichols would often ask, where would you go to find this out? to help students think through the various aspects of the case, often encouraging students to look beyond case law to find all the answers.
“It was easy to root for our client,” Nichols says. “I really enjoyed the work, and in the end, we won the case.”