By Elizabeth Petow Mayo, J.D. ’17 and
Maile Yeats-Rowe, J.D. ’17
We enrolled in the Veterans Legal Clinic our first semester of 2L year, after having attended the informational session together as 1Ls. We both wanted to do legal services work during law school, learn more about litigation, and work directly with clients. The Veterans Legal Clinic was the perfect opportunity.
Like most students in the clinic, we each handled 4-5 cases of varying complexity throughout the semester. One case, however, defined our experience. On our first day, we were told that we would be working as partners on an appeal at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (an Article I Court) arising from a veteran’s denial of benefits at the VA. Our new client suffered from posttraumatic stress as the result of an in-service sexual assault that had occurred decades prior, but had been repeatedly denied disability benefits by the VA. We ended up working with the clinic for the next year and a half to see the case through.
Over the duration of our representation, we used nearly every litigation skill that the clinic aims to develop. We conducted legal research, wrote memos, negotiated with VA attorneys, and successfully persuaded the VA to remand our case back to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, the agency’s internal appeals board. At that point, we had the opportunity to develop additional evidence to support our client’s claim, which included interviews with our client, research into her condition, FOIA requests and the recruitment of expert witnesses. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we diplomatically pestered officials at the VA to ensure that our client’s claim, which had been in the VA system for several years already, was quickly resolved.
Over the course of our time at the clinic, we learned how important it was for us to be advocates for our client. The claims adjudication process at the VA is intended to be non-adversarial and “veteran-friendly.” Even when the system is designed to work in their favor, many claimants struggle to effectively communicate the merits of their case to the VA or simply need someone who believes them when the VA does not. These cases, which require committed, focused and thorough lawyering, are exactly the kind of cases handled by students at the Veterans Legal Clinic.