The Daily Press – Hugh Lessig
The College of William and Mary Law School has attracted attention from various corners for helping disabled veterans receive their benefits. Now the General Assembly has taken notice — to the tune of $245,000.
State lawmakers approved that amount in their recently passed budget bill. It is now before Gov. Terry McAuliffe for his signature.
Founded in 2008, the Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefit Clinic provides free legal representation to veterans whose disability claims are particularly complex or incomplete. Law school students investigate these cases under supervision and have been known to backtrack years to gather information or use Facebook and other social media to find witnesses to verify claims.
The one downside: The center’s reach is limited due to its small staff and the complexity of its cases. The General Assembly can’t make the investigations any simpler, but it can help with staffing.
The $245,000 will allow the clinic to retain one staff attorney it brought on at the start of this school year. That position was funded with donations from the Class of 1984 and the Virginia Law Foundation. It will also enable the hiring of a full-time legal administrator to manage cases and a half-time psychologist to supervise mental evaluations.
A W&M news release credited Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, with helping to get the money included in the budget, along with Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City; Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico, co-chairman of Senate Finance; and Del. Chris Stolle, R-Virginia Beach.
This hasn’t been the first time a politician has noticed the center’s work.
In April 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs faced rising criticism over a backlog of disability claims, with veterans waiting months or years for a decision. Sen. Mark R. Warner urged then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to adopt the Puller Clinic as a national model, enlisting law schools around the country to help former service members.
In August of that same year, the VA certified the clinic as a national “best practices” program for speeding up submission of disability claims. This spring, W&M officials hosted a national conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss how other law schools can help veterans process their disability claims. Today, more than 40 U.S. law schools have established such clinics, according to W&M.
“The caseload demand at the Puller Clinic is growing,” said Patricia Roberts, the law professor who directs the Law School’s clinical programs, in a news release. “Without the additional personnel made possible by the state’s funding, we would be unable to serve many Virginia veterans who need legal assistance.”
Since its founding, the clinic has represented more than 100 veterans with their disability claims. It works with Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason and Radford universities, which provide psychological evaluations to veterans that cost significantly less than the private sector, the clinic says.
The law school and donations from individuals, corporations and foundations help fund both the clinic and the psychological evaluations.