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7 Things Every Public Interest Lawyer Should Know About Working with Veterans

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By Ariel N. Oliver, a 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Veterans Legal Corps, hosted by Neighborhood Legal Services Association

Photo of Ariel N. Oliver
Photo of Ariel N. Oliver

Veterans often face complex and intertwined legal problems, many of which stem from physical and mental injuries sustained during military service. In my work as a Veterans Legal Corps Fellow, I focus on keeping veterans in their homes, keeping military families together, protecting and securing income for veterans, and helping to resolve debt issues on their behalf.

At Neighborhood Legal Services Association, I’ve learned so much from my colleagues and the clients I serve. Many of the lessons I’ve learned along the way cannot be taught in law school, but rather through trial and error. To help any aspiring veterans’ advocates, I’m sharing some of the knowledge I’ve gained during my Equal Justice Works Fellowship.

Lesson 1: Not All Veterans Have PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur in anyone who has lived through horrible experiences and survived different types of trauma. While combat can be traumatic, many veterans’ legal needs do not include PTSD.

Lesson 2: Veterans are People—Connect with Them

Although veterans have experiences and training different from the civilian population, we must remember that veterans are people too. Like any other client, I treat veterans with the same respect and dignity. Genuine connections with your clients can allow them to feel more comfortable with you and set their case up for success.

Photo of Ariel Oliver (right) at a Project Love Coalition event in October 2018

Lesson 3: Locate and Use Your Resources

There are a host of organizations dedicated to meeting the needs of low-income veterans. From housing to job training, there are many people working on a litany of issues involving veterans. In order to provide your client with holistic services, it is important to make connections with other community groups. A great place to start would be your local Veterans Services Office.

Lesson 4: It’s Hard to Ask for Help

Like many of us, veterans may find it hard to ask for help. Their training culture can be built on promoting emotional and physical perfection, which makes it hard to be vulnerable. A way to overcome this is by fostering an environment of trust and security.

Lesson 5: Not All Veterans Were Soldiers

While many of us imagine soldiers when referring to a veteran, army personnel is only a portion of the veteran population. There are five branches of The U.S. Armed Forces: Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy. Each branch has their own subculture that can shape a veteran’s experience.

Lesson 6: Not Everyone Sees Themselves as a Veteran

There are some who, despite meeting the legal definition of a veteran, do not consider themselves as such. Not realizing they meet the veteran status can prevent a client from receiving benefits. One way to overcome this is to change how you present your questions during client intakes. Instead of asking, “Are you a veteran?”, a better question might be, “Did you serve in the military?”

Lesson 7: Do Not Ask If They Have Killed Anyone

While a veteran may bring up their experiences while filing disability benefits or during the course of getting to know their lawyer, this is a question that should never be asked.

Practicing cultural competency can shape aspiring public interest lawyers into wonderful advocates. These seven things have helped me become a better public interest attorney by helping me understand my clients better. It may seem simple, but taking the time to listen, learn, and be aware of your veteran clients’ background, will go a long way.

To learn more about Ariel and her project, visit her Fellow profile.

VLC is an AmeriCorps National program funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow