SIU Law helps veterans through urban-rural partnership

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SIU Law helps veterans through urban-rural partnership

August 16, 2017, Lauren P. Duncan

${image-alt} Martin Parsons, Adjunct Professor of Law, VLAP Program
${image-alt} John Erbes, Director of Clinical and Experiential Education and Assistant Professor of Law

Article from the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. 

In a time when law schools are arguably competing more closely for students than ever before, it might seem counterintuitive to see two schools working closely together on a project.

But a few Illinois schools are doing just that.

The John Marshall Law School, which has an established Veterans Legal Support Center & Clinic, has been working through what’s called an urban-rural partnership in helping Southern Illinois University School of Law work to help meet the legal needs of veterans in its region.

At JMLS, the school has had a veterans clinic for about 10 years, becoming one of the first pro bono clinics catered specifically to providing free legal help to veterans in the country.

Meanwhile, at SIU, a similar program, the Veterans’ Legal Assistance Program, or VLAP, had been developed beginning in 2008 by the school’s assistant dean for administration, John F. Lynn, a U.S. Marine Corp veteran.

John F. Erbes, director of clinical and experiential education and assistant professor at SIU School of Law, said the program was beginning to gain popularity before Lynn died unexpectedly in 2010.

The only funding the school received was from the Illinois Veterans Affairs Department, which Erbes said didn’t allow the grant money to go toward a salary, meaning Lynn was running the program largely on his own time. After Lynn’s death, SIU’s program waned for a while. Erbes then met Brian E. Clauss, the executive director at JMLS, and the two worked together to restart veterans assistance efforts at SIU and create an urban-rural partnership in helping meet legal needs for veterans through the program at both schools.

In the past two years, JMLS has worked to help raise funds for the partnership, which is split between SIU’s and JMLS’s program.

“I think it’s been a good thing in terms of getting funding, because the funders can see the opportunity there to cover a good part of the state and continue their [JMLS] program and actually start our program,” Erbes said. “Without the money that we’ve been able to get through the partnership, we would not have had enough money to start it.”

In addition to funding, Erbes credited the general support from JMLS as vital to SIU’s program restarting.

“Just the collegiality and the connectivity between the north and south and the urban and the rural has been a neat thing,” Erbes said. “It’s really been a good relationship.”

The partnership started through hosting events in southern Illinois before enough funding was raised to hire an adjunct professor at SIU last year.

That professor is Martin D. Parsons, a 2015 graduate from SIU School of Law. He joined the school as the professor who oversees VLAP by directing students in externships.

Erbes said that the school’s program doesn’t count as a full- fledged clinic because there isn’t a full-time faculty member to operate it, but he said he’s hopeful that fundraising efforts will help the school to turn its externship program into a clinic like John Marshall’s.

Most recently, the program has been helped by the receipt of a $64,500 grant from the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation and the schools hope to receive another grant for their partnership later this year. At SIU, the funding will go toward hiring an attorney-fellow to help with services, marketing and potentially expanding what the school is able to help veterans with.

The fellow, who has yet to be selected, will work with Parsons, who is a veteran himself. Parsons served four years of active duty in the Marine Corps plus 22 years in the Illinois Army National Guard.

Parsons works with the student externs to help local veterans on their disability appeals, where a service member has been denied a disability claim or is seeking additional disability funding. The students also help handle limited discharge upgrade petitions, wherein a veteran who received a dishonorable or less than honorable discharge — which can make it difficult to get a job — may qualify to get an upgrade if he or she can prove they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or othercircumstances.

The program helps veterans in the 15 southernmost counties in Illinois, with many of their referrals coming from the Marion VA Medical Center.

But Parsons said that’s only a fraction of the matters in which veterans could use legal help. He said there’s a significant number of veterans who need help with general legal issues, including criminal cases and family law matters. In some cases, Parsons is able to refer those individuals to another clinic or legal aid organization, but one day, he said, he’d like to see SIU be able to help veterans with the broader range of legal issues they face.

There’s also potentially a greater need for representation of veterans ahead, as Illinois rolls out its new veterans court program. Last year, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation requiring each judicial circuit to establish a court for veterans by Jan. 1, 2018. The courts are set to address the specialized problems faced by veteran and service member defendants.

Because of what they see as a growing need for lawyers who represent veterans at low or no cost, both Parsons and Erbes said they’re hopeful that with the help of JMLS they’ll be able to continue to expand their program in the future.

In the two semesters — spring and summer of this year — that SIU has hosted student externs under the guidance of Parsons, he said that several of the 11 students he’s worked with are veterans. Parsons said about 10 percent of the law school’s students are service members or veterans.

The externships involve a weekly class, and students meet with clients, research the law, draft briefs or fill out paperwork involving the veterans’ claims.

Parsons, who never got to meet Lynn, said he’s been happy to see some of the late veteran’s plans for SIU’s program come to fruition.

“We’ve realized his vision for it at this point,” Parsons said. “We definitely have gone where he wanted it to go, and now we’re sort of looking at what’s the next step.”

This article was published by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on August, 11, 2017.  
Reprinted with permission from Law Bulletin Media.