By Paula Ann Solis
Baylor Law School students and faculty have teamed up with Veterans One Stop, a veterans support facility in Waco, to offer free legal aid.
Veterans One Stop is a coalition of various organizations and agencies that offers aid to veterans and their spouses, said Maggie McCarthy, the coordinator of Veterans Coalition for the Heart of Texas, who is in charge of finding and bringing such organizations together.
The legal aid clinics began in September as part of the Baylor Public Interest Legal Society’s initiative by law students to give back to the Waco community, said Bridget Fuselier, a professor at Baylor Law School and the society’s faculty adviser for the past six years.
“I’ve always been interested in doing pro bono work when I was in practice,” Fuselier said. “I feel like not everybody can pay hundreds of dollars an hour for legal advice and that doesn’t mean they don’t need the help. Sometimes they need it even more than the people who can pay.”
Inspired by the Texas State Bar’s initiative to aid more veterans in 2010 by then-president Terry Tottenham, Fuselier said she thought launching a similar initiative in Waco would be a great opportunity to give law students the experience they wanted while helping military families – a cause she understands personally.
“My husband’s a veteran, my dad, my grandfather, my father-in-law,” Fuselier said. “I’ve seen what people have done and how much they’ve sacrificed, so it’s a nice way to be able to give back to people who sometimes get overlooked.”
After receiving two grants, one from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and another from the Texas Bar Foundation, the organization began conducting monthly legal clinics at various locations around Waco but had been searching for a permanent site.
In January, just four months after the Public Interest Legal Society began hosting clinics, Veterans One Stop opened its doors at 2220 Austin Ave.
“The beauty of it is that the agencies themselves are here so it saves the veteran from driving all over town so they can get help with their pension benefits, find out how to go back to school, get a scholarship, get a GI Bill, get legal aid,” McCarthy said. “That’s kind of the One Stop concept. They can get help with a variety of things under one roof.”
According to the United States Census Bureau, McLennan County has more than 17,000 veterans. McCarthy said the facility is not just a place for veterans in search of legal resources but is a place to access free computers, watch television or simply fraternize with other veterans who understand their situation.
Now that Baylor Law School has joined forces with One Stop, Fuselier said she imagines it will become the permanent home for future legal aid clinics.
Fuselier said law students who volunteer at One Stop vary from third-year students who conduct legal aid interviews, under the supervision of licensed attorneys, to first-year students who handle essential paperwork and legal research.
At the last legal aid clinic March 22, four supervising attorneys and 10 Baylor law students assisted 14 veterans. Another 40 student volunteers who can’t make it to the clinics assist with the cases off-site, Fuselier said.
One volunteer who has been to both clinics at Veterans One Stop is first-year Houston law student Bethany Rumford. Rumford said although she is a first-year student, she has had the opportunity to conduct legal aid interviews with veterans and has gained real-world experience.
“Personally, I think it’s a real privilege to interview veterans, to work with them one-on-one,” Rumford said. “They’ve given so much to our country that to give back and try to help them with their legal problems is a very rewarding experience.”
Rumford and Fuselier both said the types of legal matters veterans need assistance with vary greatly and may sometimes demand more than the volunteers, and even attorneys, are capable of managing.
“There’s a gentleman who came in and he was actually in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge and sustained an injury from fighting and he’s never received any veterans benefits for his injuries,” Fuselier said. “It’s an unfair situation and unfortunately navigating the waters of veterans benefits is fairly complicated.”
Fuselier explained that only attorneys certified by the Veterans Administration could help with such legal issues.
“I have several different kinds of cases that deal with some peculiarities of veterans benefits so one of the things we’re trying to do is reach out and find those attorneys out there, even if they’re not right here in Waco, if they’re somewhere nearby willing to help out,” Fuselier said.
Rumford, after having witnessed the demand for legal veterans assistance, said she has been inspired to do something about the deficit. “I want to alleviate that need and eventually get that certification and be able to be on hand to help,” Rumford said.
While some veterans claims are challenging for volunteers not accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs, they do not turn anyone away, and according to McCarthy and Fuselier, are hoping that even more veterans will come forward with their legal needs. One segment of the veterans community Fuselier said she would like to offer more aid to is the Baylor student body.
“I know we have people on campus, undergrad students, who have been in the military and this is open to them too,” Fuselier said. “They’re veterans too. Just because they’re young doesn’t mean they can’t come and get help.”
The next legal clinic Baylor Law School will host is from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. April 19, at Veterans One Stop. Appointments aren’t needed.