Aim High: Law student's military background helps her serve vets

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By Lara Zielin
Michigan Law

Basic training. A highly regimented schedule. A litany of demanding and sometimes demeaning rules designed to break down underclassmen so they can be built back up again as a unit, a team.

Very little about the Air Force Academy is easy. If you’re Alexis Bailey, there’s also the September 11 attacks, which happened when she was a sophomore. If she’d had any thoughts about transferring to a different school at that point, they vanished; suddenly, she was in. All in. In a single day, she says, she and her classmates went from training during a long stretch of U.S. peacetime to “doing something important. We were defending the country.”

It’s nearly impossible for someone who hasn’t been through such experiences personally to imagine what they’re like. Which is why Bailey and her background are such an ideal fit for Michigan Law’s new Veterans Legal Clinic. With a small cohort of six other law students—five of whom are veterans—Bailey is helping lay the groundwork for legal services on behalf of veterans and, in some instances, their immediate families in a variety of civil matters, ranging from eviction to family law cases.

This past fall “was the very first semester of the clinic,” Bailey says, “and it takes a while to get the train rolling. But we’ve developed the mission statement, the vision statement, and the core values. My partner and I had two clients during the first semester as well—both of them homeless veterans.” In all, the clinic has taken on 20 veterans as clients.

The state of Michigan has 720,000 military veterans—the sixth- highest state total nationwide. Twenty percent have significant mental health issues and 65,000 are younger than age 39.

“We’re doing our legal work while coordinating with other community resources such as the Salvation Army and the VA, providing a missing piece in the puzzle as struggling veterans try to get their feet underneath them,” Bailey says.

In one case, the team worked to get a veteran access to subsidized housing. “A 40-year-old criminal conviction was preventing our client from getting into an affordable housing community. We were unsuccessful in our efforts to advocate directly with the housing complex, but we did get him connected with a short-term housing solution while we work to get his record expunged, and in the future, we may challenge the policy as a whole,” she explains.

In the other case, a vet “had gotten himself into a legal hole,” Bailey says. “He was deep in child-support debt and had lost custody of his children, but was very confused about why and how it had happened. We’re helping him navigate the process to be reunited with his children, as well as setting up a manageable payment plan for the debts that he owes.”

The clinic, she says, is “a process of helping people rebuild their lives.”

The team mentality of the clinic resonates with Bailey’s military background. “I don’t think anyone is joking when they say how supportive [Michigan Law] students are of one another. But it’s still largely individual—in most classes, it’s you and the final and that’s all there is to it. The clinic is a totally different experience. The extent to which it isn’t individualistic or competitive is really refreshing.”

In many ways, the clinic is the thread that ties Bailey’s law studies together with her work after graduating from the Air Force Academy in 2004.

Bailey earned a PhD in public policy from the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, California, in 2007. She then worked for three years in Las Vegas for the Department of Defense and subsequently was an assistant professor for the Air Force ROTC in Los Angeles. During the latter assignment, she says, she “taught college students the ROTC academic and leadership curriculum,” which she loved. “Giving the commissioning oath to the 14 students I’d seen through from being freshmen to becoming lieutenants was such a rewarding honor.” She knew she loved teaching and helping people. At RAND, she understood that “a lot of the big issues that I was thinking about there—sexual assault, military mental health—were gaining visibility within a legal framework,” which helped steer her to law school.

When she got to Michigan and found the clinic, everything clicked. “Clinical teaching is a lot like being an ROTC instructor, in that you’re watching and encouraging and mentoring, but you’re also letting people learn by trial and error.”
The a-ha moment came when Bailey realized that policy-level changes were possible under the banner of a legal clinic.

“I didn’t have a great vision for how it was all going to come together. But now I’m more and more excited. It’s the same thing that drives me to serve the country. I want to do my part. I want to serve the underserved.”

Somehow, she’s doing this all while she and her husband, Justin, raise two kids: Ronen, 5, and Ava, 3. With a long Michigan legacy in her family—her great-grandfather, grandfather, parents, husband, brother, sister, and several other relatives attended U-M—the kids are excited about being Wolverines. Ronen recently finished attending the Towsley Children’s House, a U-M-run daycare. “He calls himself a U-M graduate now, too,” Bailey says.
 

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