by Jessica Huseman, Staff Writer
DECEMBER 19 — Joseph “Chester” Romero tried for years to file for disability benefits after sustaining back injuries during World War II, but dozens of filings yielded no results. Romero, like many veterans in his situation, couldn’t afford a lawyer. But he got one anyway.
Pro bono legal help in the form of Darin Schultz, an attorney with Vinson & Elkins, came along just in time.
“In the end, Mr. Romero got his benefits,” Schultz said. “As well as almost 13 years of back benefits.”
Mr. Romero passed away after receiving his benefits, but his wife Mary, 81, said the continuing payments make it possible for her to get by.
“I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t receiving these benefits,” she said. “I’m so thankful. To have someone you don’t know work so hard for you, that’s a wonderful thing.”
Pro bono initiatives for veterans are becoming increasingly popular across the state of Texas. Many firms, including Akin Gump, Fulbright & Jaworski, Hunton & Williams, and Patton Boggs, have projects of their own.
In fact, the legal departments at two of Texas’ largest corporations conduct regular legal clinics for veterans. Nearly a dozen in-house lawyers at Shell Oil in Houston recently led a daylong pro bono clinic at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Houston. In-house counsel at American Airlines have teamed with lawyers from Haynes & Boone multiple times to staff daylong clinics for veterans in Dallas.
The Houston Bar Association started a veterans program in 2008 in order to stop the flow of veterans coming back from war without access to needed legal help, said Travis Sales, a partner at Baker Botts who was president of the HBA at the start of the program.
“That was situation we couldn’t allow to stand,” Sales said. “The people who ensure our justice system is in place need to have full access to it.”
The goal of the HBA’s program was to achieve a “more comprehensive” legal aid program for veterans – something Sales is confident they achieved.
They put a clinic in place that runs every Friday from 2 to 5 p.m., began offering Saturday clinics and regularly participated in holiday parties for veterans. And while most people only qualify for legal aid if they are at 175 percent of the poverty level, the HBA raised that level to 300 percent for veterans to accommodate as many as possible.
They have surpassed 5,000 veterans helped in Houston, and see about 25 to 30 veterans at every Friday clinic. And even though the number of veterans kept growing, Sales said they never had a problem recruiting more volunteers.
“It was the easiest pro bono sale I’ve ever worked on,” Sales said.
And some volunteers aren’t just happy with helping once in a while. Bob Devlin, a retired attorney and former veteran, has been coming to every Friday clinic for two years.
“I just realized that as I was ending 47 years of active practice of law, I needed to be able to contribute in some way with my legal training,” Devlin said. “I fell in love with it and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Dedicated lawyers like Devlin helped the HBA expand the program to the 13 counties surrounding Houston, something Devlin said he is proud to be a part of.
“I think there would be even more volunteers if people really understood the need,” he said.
The growing program caught the eye of Terry Tottenham, who is Of Counsel at Fulbright & Jaworski and president of the Texas Bar Association for 2010-2011. Inspired by the HBA’s initiative, he decided to take the program statewide.
“It was something I knew I wanted to do when I ran for president,” Tottenham said. “I saw the people coming back, and knew they were going to need legal aid.”
Interested volunteers aren’t a Houston-only phenomenon, Tottenham said. It’s been easy to recruit volunteers from all over the state to become a part of the program.
“It was so popular that everyone signed on very quickly, because I think everyone saw the need for the service, and for lawyers it was a perfect mix,” he said.
And while Tottenham is proud of his success in getting the initiatives spread across Texas, he’s got a nationwide effort in mind. New York and California have already adopted similar programs, and Tottenham hopes more will catch on soon. The state bar has assembled a “clinic in a box,” which includes a slew of materials to walk new states through the set up, said Tottenham. The material can be found for free on the bar’s website.
Ellyn Joseph, pro bono counsel for V&E, oversees their Veterans Legal Initiative program, which started in 2007 when associates and partners of the firm started to notice a need.
“We feel [veterans] have served our country and they are entitled to assistance,” Joseph said. “We want to help everyone, but we want to make sure we are helping those who have done such great service.”
Regardless of whether the effort is within a firm, a local bar association or statewide, its leaders all say the same thing: The legal needs of veterans mimic the needs of society at large.
“Obviously there is a need for ensuring they get the benefits they are due,” said Tottenham. “But there are also a lot of family law issues, domestic relations issues, wills and child custody situations that need to be worked out just like everyone else.”
Jessica Huseman is a staff writer for The Texas Lawbook. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.