It was post 9/11 when the family of a George Mason University student deployed overseas found themselves facing a landlord-tenant issue. The wife came to the law school, asking for legal support and Mason stepped in pro bono. Realizing a need existed to help veterans and their families in similar situations, leaders at the law school established the Mason Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic (M-VETS) in 2004.
Since then, the clinic has represented more than 300 clients and provided Mason law students with thousands of hours of litigation experience. A new partnership with American Legion Post 139, which will be standing up a new building in Arlington, will allow the clinic to further increase its impact.
“We’re very appreciative of American Legion,” said M-VETS Director Tim MacArthur. “It’s an exciting opportunity to expand the types of legal services we can provide to the community and our students.”
“What we want to do is put a full-time employee at the M-VETS office at American Legion who will practice in areas that [we currently] don’t practice,” MacArthur said, adding that this would increase the number of students and clients the clinic could take on, as well as give students opportunities to practice more diverse areas of law.
M-VETS Deputy Director Leigh Winstead supervises students with MacArthur. She said a recent survey highlighted two areas of legal need where the clinic could grow: criminal law and employment matters.
“Our biggest areas of practice are domestic relations matters, divorces, step-parent adoptions, and landlord-tenant matters,” Winstead said. “On the military side, our bread and butter are discharge upgrades and Virginia disability benefit appeals.”
The new American Legion building and M-VETS’ expansion into the space is scheduled for 2022. Until then, M-VETS continues to serve those who serve
“It’s the least we can do for the sacrifices veterans have made for our country,” Winstead said. “Two very rewarding benefits from it are teaching the students and preparing them for practice, and being able to give back to the military community.”
M-VETS students handle three to five cases and applicants at a time, and 12 students are enrolled to work in the clinic this spring, MacArthur said.
What’s an average day like?
“We have [students] be the first chair of the case, meaning they’re the ones contacting the client, researching, preparing documents, and making sure their supervisor is up to date on the case,” MacArthur said.
“Tim and Leigh are really great about giving us a lot of autonomy, which is awesome because that’s what it’s going to be like in the real world,” said Samantha Lewis, a third-year law student entering her second semester with M-VETS. “It’s a really unique opportunity for me as a young lawyer.”
Lewis said making an impact in others’ lives has been her favorite part of law school. The clinic has also helped her gain confidence and put classroom learnings into practice.
“[Defending a client in court] was a really proud moment for me because that was my first time standing up in front of a real judge, making real arguments, and acting like a real attorney,” she said. “We’re getting all this great legal experience, and [veterans] often wouldn’t be able to get good legal services if this clinic didn’t exist.”