Veterans' advocate


Working to improve the quality of life of disabled vets

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

When Ashley Gautreau clerked in a general civil litigation law firm, she struggled to find meaning behind the work — but when she was exposed to veterans’ disability benefits through the Detroit Mercy Law School Veterans’ Law Clinic, she knew she had found her calling.

“I found myself working constantly because I knew my work could make a difference in a veteran's quality of life,” she said. “There’s nothing more rewarding than getting benefits for a disabled veteran who has served our country.”   

Gautreau enjoyed the clinical work so much that she even volunteered there over the summer between her 2L and 3L year.    

“My professor was brilliant and I learned more from this experience than any other law school class,” she said. “This allowed me to gain experience interacting with clients — and I was fortunate enough to represent a veteran at a hearing before the Board of Veterans' Appeals. It was an invaluable experience that helped me find my passion in veterans’ disability benefits.”

Gautreau now practices full time with Viterna Law in Belleville, a firm specializing in VA Disability Law.

A member of the State Bar of Michigan, the American Bar Association and the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates, she recently gained entitled benefits for a veteran who had been fighting for them since 1971.     

“The evidence needed to grant him full benefits was in the file, yet he continued to be denied and evidence overlooked,” she said. “I wish this was atypical, but most of my clients are Vietnam era veterans fighting for their disability benefits. We’re only just starting to see veterans from more recent years.”   

Gautreau’s career path started with an undergrad degree in political science, cum laude, from Oakland University, where the flexibility in class offerings and schedule allowed her to work full-time.    

Becoming a lawyer had long been a career goal.

“I've always been outspoken, loved debating about anything, enjoyed writing and my head was always in a book — law school just made sense to me,” she said.

She headed to Detroit Mercy Law School, where she was the recipient of the Dean’s Academic Scholarship, served as class president for two years and was involved in many school activities before graduating in 2012.

She received academic and competitive awards, including book awards for outstanding service to the law school community and in the veterans’ law clinic.

“I loved everything about the school,” she said. “I was afforded endless opportunities and took advantage of each one. The professors were always accessible and willing to offer professional advice, and I made lifelong friends.”   
Her work as a law clerk at a general civil litigation firm exposed her to a variety of areas of law, and familiarity with the court systems.

“The courts had not yet fully transferred to e-filing, so I was always running to the courts to file documents,” she said.    

During her internship at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, Gautreau initially worked in the special victims unit and assisted with the domestic violence misdemeanor docket. 

The second half of her internship she worked on a murder trial under Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Qiana Lillard, now a judge in the Third Circuit Court-Criminal Division.

“Every aspect of being allowed to work on a murder trial was fascinating and if I hadn’t encountered veterans’ law, I likely would have pursued the public sector,” Gautreau said.

As a member of the moot court team in law school, she placed first in the Patrick A. Keenan Memorial Appellate Advocacy Tournament and won the best advocate award in the Ernie Goodman Mock Trial Competition.

She now enjoys volunteering as a moot court competition judge.

“Every time I had to orally argue, adrenaline would kick in and I never wanted to sit down — I could stand at the podium debating my point all day,” she said. “I used to hate when I would get a ‘cold bench’ that wasn't interested in engaging in a healthy debate.    

Gautreau said she volunteers to judge moot court competitions at Detroit Mercy Law whenever she’s available and “loves engaging the law students — when I'm judging, I always keep the bench hot!”   

A native of New Orleans, where her family still lives, Gautreau moved to Michigan in 1999.  She moved to Canton from Troy after passing the bar exam. Her husband Ryan will soon graduate with his MBA.

“We’re ecstatic to have more free time on the weekends for dancing and other adventures,” she said. “We love exploring downtown Plymouth and Ann Arbor.”   

Her leisure pursuits also include yoga, reading and cooking — but dancing is her passion. In her evenings, Gautreau is a dance teacher and coaches a competitive dance team in Belleville.

“I was a competitive dancer growing up and I love that I can share my passion for dance with young girls in the community,” she said.