MU Law School to help veterans claim disability benefits

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 | 7:43 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Veterans trying to get disability benefits will be able to receive free legal assistance from a new clinic at the MU School of Law beginning in January. 

Six students supervised by an attorney from the Law School will provide legal counsel for veterans appealing decisions made on their original disability benefits claims. Their work will be a part of a new three-credit class offered in spring 2014.

The clinic is not focused on helping veterans apply for disability benefits for the first time, but instead will help those whose claims were denied or were not as much as they expected. The students will help veterans appeal their cases to the Board of Veterans' Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans' Claims.

"There are already a lot of organizations to help veterans file their initial claims, and we don't want to duplicate this effort," clinic supervising attorney Angela Drake said. "We want to work where real legal skill is needed." 

The clinic is funded by a $250,000 donation from an anonymous source, Drake said. The money will be distributed over five years, though Drake said it could last longer if the appeals are successful. If an appeal is granted, the federal government is responsible for paying all court costs, and that money would then come back to the clinic.

Most cases will come to the program through personal referrals in the area, but some of the cases could come from other states as well, Drake said. The Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program, a national organization that works to provide legal assistance to veterans and to train attorneys in veteran law, could also send cases to the students.

Two current law students, Scott Apking and Navy veteran Larry Lambert, brought the idea of the clinic to MU after attending a simulated court competition in Washington, D.C. The idea was readily accepted because Gary Myers, dean of the Law School, had heard about similar clinics before, Drake said.

Interest in the program has been so high that potential participants will have to interview for one of the six available spots. Drake estimated that between 15 and 25 people will apply.

Unlike the five already existing law clinics on campus, the veterans clinic will give the law students the opportunity to work in appellate courts, work with medical records and immerse themselves in veteran law, Drake said.

"We want to provide real-world experience before they graduate," Drake said.

Seventeen similar university veteran clinics exist as of March 2013, according to the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program.

Myers and a representative from the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program will speak at the clinic's opening ceremony at 1 p.m. Thursday in Hulston Hall at MU.

Drake said the U.S. government's shutdown could complicate the clinic's operations, though the clinic currently has no alternative plans in place. However, she does not expect it to be a problem since the program does not begin until January.

"We're monitoring the state of the current government shutdown," Drake said. "We may need to re-evaluate the plans for the clinic in the future."

During the shutdown, the Board of Veterans' Appeals will make no decisions on claims appeals, according to a document issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"These people have helped our country, and they need our help to get the benefits they have earned," Drake said.

Supervising editor is Allie Hinga.

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