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Tips for Working with Veteran Clients

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Photo of Zach Outzen
Photo of Zach Outzen

By Zach Outzen, 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow. Zach is hosted by National Veterans Legal Services Program and sponsored by the Lavan-Harris Charitable Fund.

Growing up in a family with six Army veterans, I have had a lifetime to become familiar with military and veterans’ culture without being a veteran myself. Luckily, you don’t need that background to connect with veteran clients and successfully advocate on their behalf. When building rapport with veteran clients, the following fundamentals of an attorney-client relationship apply: be empathetic, friendly, competent, and trustworthy. Understanding the nuances specific to the military and veterans’ community is also important. Here are five tips to help you connect with military and veteran clients:

  1. Understand that there is a distinct military and veteran culture and understand how you fit into it. Cultural competency is crucial when working with any population, including servicemembers and veterans. That does not mean that you should attempt to force a connection with your client, but it does mean that you should be authentic, understanding, and aware of how your client’s background may differ from your own.
  2. Understand intersectionality in veterans. As America continues to become increasingly diverse, our military has begun to reflect our broader society. Although veterans share a common bond through their service, the lived experience of Black veterans, women veterans, LGBTQIA+ veterans, Indigenous veterans, and immigrant veterans will be different from those who do not share those identities. Understanding intersectionality is crucial to being an effective advocate. For example, seeking a discharge upgrade for a LGBTQIA+ veteran discharged under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” will look different from a discharge upgrade for a non-LGBTQIA+ veteran.
  3. Practice trauma-informed advocacy. Not all veterans identify as having experienced trauma, but many veterans seeking legal assistance do. To build an effective rapport with a veteran with traumatic experiences, ensure that you are comfortable with trauma-informed advocacy and client interviewing skills. In some cases, this will require an empathetic, gentle approach to discussing a traumatic experience that lies at the heart of your client’s legal matter. In other cases, this may entail knowing when a traumatic event—although deeply relevant to the veteran’s personal experience—is not relevant to their legal matter, allowing you to avoid unnecessarily reopening difficult subjects. Understanding how to navigate these dynamics requires a baseline understanding of trauma and the stressors from which it arises.
  4. Be aware of what resources are available to the veteran. There is a vast network of military and veterans’ benefits programs, as well as national and local resources that can assist veterans with these areas. Sometimes, clients may need help with matters outside of the scope of your representation. If you familiarize yourself with the veterans’ advocacy landscape, you can provide timely referrals to ensure that your client’s needs are met.
  5. Be aware of resources available to you. Veterans’ law can be a challenging practice area. Cases often involve both legal and medical issues, and the law itself is fast-changing. Fortunately, there is a tight-knit veterans’ law bar with many eager and willing mentors, and many veterans’ advocacy groups are happy to lend their expertise. Never be afraid to seek out help or mentorship, as it is abundantly available and can make a huge difference.

In every case I handle, I apply the five tips above, which I have drawn from my own experience as both an Army family member and second-generation American. I have found that this approach helps me effectively build relationships with my clients. Other non-veteran lawyers can take this approach, as well, to connect with their veteran clients.

To learn more about Zach’s Equal Justice Works Fellowship, visit his profile here.

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