As a young woman, I decided to become a lawyer because I saw the legal profession as the best way for me to give something back to my community and our great country. It was a way to serve the public, defend the Constitution of the United States and extend justice for everyone.
My service to the American Bar Association was an extension of that goal. With more than 400,000 members, the ABA is one of the largest voluntary professional organizations in the world, dedicated to defending liberty and our freedom.
Those on the front lines of that defense are our nation’s veterans, the men and women who took an oath saying they would die for us, our country in the defense of our liberty and freedom. That is why, as the president of the ABA, I have created the Veterans Legal Services Initiative, designed to make more legal help available to our military veterans.
Many of our veterans desperately need our help. Our country now has nearly 40,000 homeless veterans. The fastest-growing homeless population in America is women veterans. Some 1.4 million veterans live below the poverty line. Another 1.4 million live just barely above it. That means 13 percent of our nation’s heroes live below or near the poverty line. Many face multiple legal problems, such as evictions, child-custody disputes, wrongful denial of benefits and credit problems. In fact, about half of the top 10 problems leading to homelessness among veterans cannot be solved without legal help.
We can do better. We must do better. We will do better. I became aware of the needs of veterans when colleagues at my Atlanta law firm spent time at a local homeless shelter for men, bringing the law to those who needed it most. The first day, they were amazed that in a matter of minutes they could help homeless veterans get ID cards so they could access VA benefits and qualify for house and medical care. It made me realize yet again what a difference a lawyer can make.
When our justice system fails these heroes, we as lawyers must recognize that their real sacrifice rests on something dear to our profession: the protection of a just rule of law throughout the world. Our task is to provide them with the access to justice they need. They deserve nothing less.
The ABA just completed our annual Pro Bono Celebration, which brings free legal assistance to those living on the economic margins. This year, our Celebration was extended through October to Veterans Day so we could address the unique legal needs of our nation’s veterans. Across the country, thousands of lawyers volunteered their time to assist these heroes with their legal problems.
And our new ABA’s Veterans Legal Services Initiative will engage with law schools and bar associations to promote legal-services incubators, particularly in rural areas, to bring services to veterans while providing valuable training for new and underemployed lawyers.
We will work to establish medical-legal partnerships that pair VA medical facilities with lawyers to solve legal problems and promote legal check-ups for veterans, their families and caregivers.
Our initiative includes efforts to provide pro bono help to veterans whose benefit claims were caught in a massive backlog.
Consider James, a disabled Korean War veteran, who was rendered homeless following a difficult eviction from the home he had lived in for more than 30 years. Now 82 years old, he was living out of his truck, surviving on very limited income and depending upon the generosity of his former neighbors. With free legal representation, it was discovered that for over 60 years James was repeatedly told that his military records had been lost and there was no way to substantiate his eligibility for VA disability benefits. Because of a lawyer, his records were found and he succeeded in getting his richly deserved veteran pension.
Or consider the recent case of a 65-year-old Air Force veteran who needed kidney dialysis three times per week and was the tenant of a subsidized housing provider. On a cold January night, the power went out. Without heat, he contacted the landlord, who promised to get it turned back on — but never did. Twelve days later with no heat he got word that the landlord had terminated his housing without the required legal process. He was suddenly homeless during the coldest winter in decades. After a year of sleeping in cars and shelters with nowhere to go, this brave veteran died.
This is unacceptable. And as members of the ABA, we believe it is our duty to help.
Our initiative will be led by a 20-member volunteer commission that will harness the vast knowledge of ABA membership and our extensive nationwide relationships. The commission is working on access to legal services, strategic communications and resource development that will allow veterans and service providers to get the help they need.
In honor of those who have fought and risked their lives in defense of our liberty, we are extending a helping hand to these men and women on Veterans Day and show them our gratitude for bravely serving our nation.
Linda A. Klein, an attorney with Baker Donelson in Atlanta, is president of the American Bar Association