Wisconsin Law School mobile center offers free legal aid to veterans

August 3, 2016 By Käri Knutson
Laura Smythe, director of UW Law School's Pro Bono program, is pictured in her Law Building office at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Included within the Pro Bono program is the Veterans Law Center, which provides civil legal services for veterans and their families, both in the Madison area and beyond via a mobile outreach clinic.

Laura Smythe, director of UW Law School’s Pro Bono program, is pictured in her Law Building office at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Included within the Pro Bono program is the Veterans Law Center, which provides civil legal services for veterans and their families, both in the Madison area and beyond via a mobile outreach clinic. Photo: Jeff Miller

MADISON – Nearly 300 veterans have been offered free legal assistance since the University of Wisconsin Law School started its Veterans Law Center in November 2012.

Laura Smythe wants to help more.

“There’s a huge unmet need,” says Smythe, who has served as director for the past two years.

On Aug. 10, a mobile VLC will travel to the Appleton Public Library to offer assistance from 10 a.m. until noon to veterans who can’t attend the regularly scheduled clinics in Madison. More mobile stops will be planned with a goal of two or three a year to begin with.

The Veterans Law Center was developed by the University of Wisconsin Law School Pro Bono Program in 2012 in collaboration with the Dane County Bar Association, the Dane County Veterans Service Office, and Porchlight, Inc. Major funding is provided by the State Bar of Wisconsin and Habush, Habush & Rottier.

Volunteer attorneys, along with paralegals and law students, provide brief legal advice, information and referrals on a variety of civil legal matters.

“We forget the value of being fully listened to. To know that yes, things are bad, but there’s hope and that somebody actually cares.”

Laura Smythe

The idea to go mobile came after numerous phone calls from people who didn’t have a way to get to Madison but needed help. Turning away people in need was heartbreaking for Smythe.

“It felt like we could be doing more to expand outreach throughout the state,” Smythe says. “That’s what law in action is all about.”

Law in Action is a tradition at the UW Law School – meaning students learn not only legal rules, but also why those rules evolved to address social concerns, and how those rules operate in the real world.

As a graduate of the school, Smythe feels good about being able to not only give back to her alma mater but to instill the law in action tradition with students.

Smythe attended a Wisconsin Idea Seminar, a five-day traveling study tour that immerses forty UW–Madison faculty, academic staff, and administrators in the educational, industrial, social, and political realities of Wisconsin. After the trip, Smythe was inspired to take the Veterans Law Center on the road. Funds were provided through a grant from the State Bar of Wisconsin Pro Bono Initiative Program to purchase a mobile printer. While a university-issued fleet vehicle will be used for the trips, Smythe is hopeful that some day the program grows and has its own donated vehicle.

A volunteer attorney staffs each clinic along with a student from the UW Law School.

Since the program started, it has seen 286 clients. Just this year, it has seen 46 clients.

“They often feel very isolated. Not everyone comes home to a family or a support network.”

Laura Smythe

While legal issues are difficult for anyone to face, it can be even harder for those adjusting to life as a civilian, Smythe says.

“They often feel very isolated. Not everyone comes home to a family or a support network,” Smythe says. “For those without a safety net, it’s a daunting return.”

Some of the issues facing veterans include foreclosure, bankruptcy, housing issues, divorce, child custody matters and unemployment benefits. Often, students can do research while the attorney continues to work closely with the client.

Training is offered each semester for students. Smythe says it’s invaluable experience, no matter what area of law they plan to practice.

“Everything they learned in class – this is what it looks like in the real world,” Smythe says. “There’s learning in the classroom and then there’s the meaningful application of what you’ve learned. It’s really healthy to get out of the classroom.”

It’s not just legal help they offer. It’s an ear. While Smythe hopes the students learn more about law from the experience, she wants them to also learn how important it is to listen to their clients.

“They have a story that’s worth listening to,” Smythe says. “We forget the value of being fully listened to. To know that yes, things are bad, but there’s hope and that somebody actually cares.”