Widener Law obtains national fellowships to benefit its Veterans Law Clinic
Public Relations - Published: July 3, 2013

Susan Saidel discusses enhancements to the services provided by the Veterans Law Clinic.

The Veterans Law Clinic at Widener Law is enhancing its services to veterans with new positions made possible by Equal Justice Works grants and the generous spirit of student volunteers.

A grant awarded June 17 from Equal Justice Works’ AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship program will fund two, full-time clinic fellows for one year. The program provides opportunities for lawyers to positively impact vulnerable communities. The fellowship, supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service, will provide living allowances and loan repayment assistance for the fellows, who will be hired over the summer. Widener anticipates they will begin work early in the fall semester.

“These fellowships are an ideal fit for our clinic,” said Susan Saidel, interim clinic director. “They will provide us with much-needed professional legal help to assist our veteran clients while offering a unique work experience for two attorneys who want to use their law degrees in public service.”

The clinic provides free legal representation to low-income, disabled U.S. military veterans and their dependents who are appealing Veteran Affairs denials of disability claims to the Board of Veterans Appeals. It currently has about 200 clients. Law students handle the appeals under the supervision of Saidel and another part-time clinic staff attorney. The clinic has recovered more than $3 million in arrearages owed to American veterans since its founding in 1997.

Saidel spearheaded the clinic’s effort to obtain the funding. The Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship program was created in 1993 to address gaps in the legal aid community. Fellows work in a variety of issue areas, with veterans’ assistance considered a significant priority. It is one of the most highly regarded national service programs in the country.

“We were thrilled when Equal Justice Works agreed to fund our application for these fellowships,” Saidel said. “We know what a critical service the Veterans Law Clinic provides our military men and woman, and it was gratifying to get this vote of confidence from Equal Justice Works. These fellowships will enhance our ability to make a difference in the lives of veterans.”

Fellows will provide direct legal services to veterans, especially reaching out to homeless and those with complex mental health needs. They will handle some VA appeal cases, but their presence will also allow the clinic to expand services and deal with barriers to employment or financial stability. For example, fellows may assist clients with consumer debt and medical billing issues, legal problems such as unpaid fines, warrants or tickets that can stymie efforts to maintain a driver’s license, and the financial issues associated with attempts to get honorable military discharge upgrades.

The fellows will also assist in supervising law student clinic interns.

In addition to the long-term fellowships, the clinic has secured extra, structured staffing assistance through the summer.

For the first time, three Equal Justice Works SummerCorps law students are receiving an AmeriCorps-funded stipend to work at the clinic. The students will complete at least 300 hours of legal services to work on veterans’ cases between May and August.

An additional four law students are volunteering at the clinic part-time over the summer break. They will also work on appeals cases, contributing service to veterans while gaining valuable practical skills and experience.

“Summer break has traditionally been a busy time at the clinic, while staff attorneys manage the caseload with one or two students dropping in to assist. This year, the increased number of students – working more structured hours – has strengthened our team effort to benefit clients,” Saidel said.

Law Dean Linda L. Ammons lauded the clinic’s efforts to make a difference in veterans’ lives.

“Our Veterans Law Clinic operates like a busy law firm, dedicated to the legal needs of our servicemen and women. It may be small, but it is a mighty force in obtaining the disability benefits our grateful nation owes these veterans,” Ammons said. “The Independence Day holiday is a fitting time to recognize these new fellowships and look forward to the exciting services they will allow us to provide.”