Published July 23, 2019
Targeting the “underserved” needs of veterans, the UB School of Law has launched a series of programs and courses to address legal concerns and interests of veterans trying to navigate the law.
The initiative to create a “veterans presence” within the School of Law is especially appropriate because UB is on MilitaryFriendly.com’s list of the Top 10 Military-Friendly Schools among Tier 1 research institutions in the U.S. for 2018-19.
“We have a severe access-to-justice issue for veterans,” says Kim Diana Connolly, professor and director of clinical legal education and vice dean for advocacy and experiential education. Connolly this summer taught LAW 620LEC, a Veterans Law course that is the first of its kind in the U.S., and the first online-only course in the School of Law.
“Veterans have a hard time getting served,” she says. “There are veterans who get great help from community partners in certain specialty areas. So if someone is having a landlord-tenant issue, they go to Neighborhood Legal Services, and other experts can serve other needs.
“But there is a lack of knowledge of veterans-specific law — how to deal with complicated areas such as discharge upgrades, access to benefits or issues that have to do with navigating the complex and ever-changing system of veterans law.”
The need locally is great, according to law school administrators and professors. Of the more than 900,000 veterans in New York State, Erie County ranks among the top five counties for veterans: 68 of every 1,000 individuals in Erie County are veterans. According to UB’s Office of Veteran Services, there are 171 veterans and 85 people in active service on campus.
“Now UB’s School of Law has an arc,” says Connolly. ‘We have a presence in the veterans law world. Ultimately, the goal is to have a full-time person working in the building taking on a large number of cases.”
“It is a privilege to both teach and serve our veterans,” says Dean Aviva Abramovsky. “Representing this often vulnerable population and helping to ensure that they receive the benefits and services that they are entitled to is a social responsibility that the State of New York’s law school is honored to embrace.”
So far, the School of Law has the following elements:
The Veterans Law Practicum
The Veterans Legal Practicum is funded through a three-year Justice for Heroes grant from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office, secured with the help of the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs.
The practicum, co-directed by Anthony J. Kuhn ’15 and Connolly, is a course offered to educate future attorneys on veterans law and also give students practical, hands-on training. Students have readings, projects and weekly classes, but they also have service-learning assignments. Last academic year, they provided more than 1,000 hours of pro bono service, mainly in the form of several dedicated help desks staffed by law students enrolled in the practicum course.
Students now staff help desks from 2 to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays at Western New York Heroes, a veterans advocacy organization at 8205 Main St., Amherst, and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursdays at SERV Niagara, 80 Park Ave., Lockport. There also will be a help desk starting this fall in O’Brian Hall on UB’s North Campus.
“We bring the veterans in the door,” says Kuhn. “If it’s a practice area we can’t get involved in, we provide referrals to agencies for the underserved veterans community.”
The help desks will train future lawyers in the consultation process and client interactions, Kuhn says, skills they will need if they pursue a career in private practice. The on-campus help desk will serve students, faculty and staff. The non-UB locations will be open to all veterans.
"There are hundreds of thousands of veterans in need of legal services, but not enough qualified attorneys to assist them,” Kuhn says. “Veterans often struggle to get answers to complex benefit-based questions. Many have been harshly separated from the military after years of service, based on misconduct that occurred as a result of an underlying mental health condition, such as PTSD.
“Working with our new dean and Prof. Connolly, we were able to develop a program that not only meets benefit-related needs of our veterans, but will reach beyond that to more complicated issues such as discharge upgrades, medical disability retirement issues and civil or debt matters.”
Veterans in need of legal help come to one of the help desks, where they are interviewed by a pair of law student veteran advocates who provide information on what kind of assistance is available, which may involve meeting with a New York State licensed attorney.
“My hope,” Kuhn says, “is that we can become one of the nation’s largest and most productive veterans law practicums and eventually create a large clinic. We have a huge veteran population in Erie and Niagara counties, and this is just a start.”
Kuhn comes to the practicum with both professional experience: He practices veterans law at Tully Rinckey PLLC, where he is the managing partner of the firm’s Buffalo office and chair of the firm’s nationwide Military and National Security Practice Groups. And he is a veteran himself.
In the Army since 1996, Kuhn served in active duty and overseas deployment, and continues in the Army Reserve. He is a brigade-level operations NCO with more than a decade of experience training and supervising thousands of soldiers and officers across two different countries’ armed forces.
“As is true of all UB School of Law practicum courses, there is a strong classroom component with in-depth, real-world readings to prepare students for the service-learning component,” says Connolly, who has specialized in experiential learning for almost 20 years.
“We have also integrated other vital skills training, including working with clients, functioning in teams, operating with proper trauma-informed lawyering, restorative practices, and using reflection and self-evaluation to ensure excellence in practice.”
Continuing Legal Education Conferences
The School of Law organized two Continuing Legal Education, or CLE, conferences on veterans law this past academic year.
The first was Ethically Advocating for Those Who Served – A Veterans Law Clinic, held Nov. 16. More than 30 students and attorneys learned about advocating for veterans and assisting veterans in the benefits process.
The second CLE conference was held April 26 at UB’s Center for Tomorrow, an expression of gratitude toward veterans that the school called Thank You for Your Service: A Human Rights Conference for Veterans, Service Members, Their Families & Their Advocates. Over 200 people attended this conference, more proof to School of Law administrators and instructors of the need and demand for veterans law.
The conference brought together some of the nation’s leading veterans advocates to discuss issues “too often ignored in our conversations about veterans and their families,” according to organizers.
Among the topics covered were how to improve services for veterans in the criminal justice system, how to best represent veterans wrongfully assigned a less-than-honorable character of discharge, and how to best assist veterans who are confronting alcoholism and/or substance abuse.
The first online-only course
The School of Law debuted its first online-only course this summer, a veterans law course that is the first of its kind in the U.S.
Law students earned three credits for enrolling in and completing “Veterans Law” — or LAW 620LEC — which ran for six weeks beginning May 20. The innovative course, co-taught by Connolly and Kuhn, was open to law students and students in other majors in Western New York and across the country, as well as lawyers who wanted to learn more about veterans law.
Once again, the course was designed to fill the need for lawyers skilled in the underserved areas of veterans law.
Kuhn and Connolly credited Abramovsky and Benjamin Pomerance, deputy director of program development for the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs, with invaluable support. Kuhn says they will work as a group to ensure the School of Law becomes a destination for future attorneys and veteran advocates across the country, and that each graduate is prepared to “become a force multiplier in supporting our nation’s veterans.”
“Our goal is to surpass every other program and become the tip of the spear when it comes to training and fielding veterans law advocates,” says Kuhn. “We owe this to the brave men and women who make the sacrifices they make so that we can sleep peacefully in our beds at night.”