Program links lawyers and veterans for pro bono work

By Lee Dryden
BridgeTower Media Newswires
 
A national network being launched by a law firm is aimed at linking veterans in need of legal services with lawyers willing to help at little or no cost.

Jones Day, which has 18 offices throughout the nation including Detroit, has developed VetLex with plans to recruit hundreds of attorneys to provide pro bono service. The firm will offer training for lawyers specific to veterans’ needs.

The effort, which also involves the American Bar Association, is expected to begin in the spring in pilot sites after training and recruitment. Veterans will visit vetlex.org and describe their issue so they can be matched with an attorney.

It is touted as the “first national and central resource allocated to legal service referrals for veterans” in a press release issued just prior to the unveiling of the program on Veterans Day.

 Meeting veterans’ needs

Jones Day has long supported veterans through pro bono work, but “it’s always been an office-by-office basis,” said David S. Rutkowski, a partner in the firm’s Detroit office, which opened a year ago.

As the firm got further involved with helping veterans, it was clear that more was needed.

“There is such a tremendous need out there and so many people in the legal community putting in a lot of great work, but no coordination,” he said.

The idea came about for a national network offering pro bono or reduced-fee services for veterans, Rutkowski said. The effort is coordinated with the American Bar Association.

“It’s a big project,” he said.

Rutkowski said the program isn’t designed for veterans to go online and select a lawyer — the network does that for them. However, there is a self-help component for users and veteran organizations including chat rooms, a brief bank and access to various forms.

While pro bono help for military veterans is often focused on securing benefits, VetLex is much broader. Legal assistance could include family law, landlord-tenant disputes, driver’s license restoration, business start-up, employment matters and beyond.

“The intention is to address whatever legal needs are out there,” Rutkowski said. “It’s not intended to be limited to benefits.”

The program isn’t just a Jones Day effort as recruitment will be geared toward legal service organizations, corporate legal departments, law firms, bar associations, and law schools. The large-scale effort is necessary to match the need, Rutkowski said, adding that Jones Day lawyers in Detroit are ready to get involved.

He added that it’s important to “tap into the goodwill that exists” as there is significant interest in the legal community to participate. Lawyers can be matched to cases by their skills and assist veterans in their area or other regions thanks to technology.

The ABA will bring its expertise in pro bono and legal referral to the effort, along with a national membership of potential volunteers, according to the press release. Jones Day and the ABA are defining their roles in VetLex while anticipating that the bar association will steer the effort long-term.

“Our nation owes a huge debt of gratitude to our veterans, yet the brave men and women who fought to protect freedom and the rule of law around the world often lack access to their own legal system here at home,” said Laura Ellsworth, partner-in-charge of global community service initiatives at Jones Day in a statement. “That needs to change and we are proud to be taking a leading role in the development and launch of VetLex.”

Linda A. Klein, president of the American Bar Association, added in a statement, “Despite all the excellent work under way for veterans throughout the country, the need to augment this work with more pro bono effort is clear. VetLex is a tool that can effectively support the recruitment, training, placement and management of volunteer lawyers who want to make a difference for veterans.”

VetLex will also provide a listing of social service providers where veterans can be referred by lawyers if “wrap around” services are needed.

 Training is available

While some pro bono work for veterans will dovetail with lawyers’ expertise, some areas may require training to provide effective service.

“Unless your practice is involved in obtaining benefits, it’s not in your skill set. You’ll need some training,” Rutkowski said.

Training and certification of volunteers is described in the release as a “major aspect” of the initiative. Jones Day has developed a program that will be offered in all of its 18 U.S. offices. Other training options include the ABA, veteran service organizations, local bar associations and law schools.

Lawyers and providers can sign up for information updates at vetlex.org. All who sign up will be notified when the VetLex portal is live so they can formally register.
 

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