Wisconsin's Veterans Law Center finds a new way to go where it's needed: BTN LiveBIG

Wisconsin's Veterans Law Center finds a new way to go where it's needed: BTN LiveBIG

Clients (in uniform) at the University of Wisconsin Veterans Law Center clinic

Veteran clients wait to be seen at one of the VLC free clinics

It was a phone call that Laura Smythe was tired of receiving.

Every week, Smythe was fielding numerous calls from veterans or their family members or their friends, all with a similar refrain. While they had heard about the University of Wisconsin’s Veterans Law Center and were in need of its help, they lacked a means of transportation to get to one of the monthly clinics the center held in Madison.

“Given the frequency with which I was receiving these phone calls, it meant there was obviously an unmet need,” says Smythe, director of the UW Law School Pro Bono Program which oversees the VLC.

So she decided to take the show on the road. This August saw the first mobile VLC clinic bring needed legal assistance to veterans outside of the Madison area.

Founded in 2012, the Veterans Law Center provides free legal aid on a variety of issues to low-income veterans and their families.

The topics that VLC lawyers address most frequently, according to Smythe, are divorce, child custody disputes, evictions, employment concerns, and bankruptcy, which is frequently “due to a combination of all of the above.”

“It is often a difficult transition for many veterans,” Smythe explains. “They may not have family or friends with whom they can bunk, they may not have a job waiting for them, etc. They are coming from an environment where they had a great deal of structure back to civilian life where there is often much less structure and the lines of authority are often less clear.”

While the need for the VLC to have a greater reach within Wisconsin was readily apparent from the numerous calls she was receiving, Smythe says it was the hallowed Wisconsin Idea that motivated her to go mobile with the clinics.

The Wisconsin Idea is a precept central to the mission of the entire University of Wisconsin system. Outlined by former UW president Charles Van Hise, the Idea simply means the work of the university shall be to the benefit of every person in the state.

Smythe, nominated by the dean of the law school, was selected to be among the 40 faculty and staff members to embark on the Wisconsin Idea seminar, an annual, five-day traveling – by bus – study of the Idea in action. The seminar explores how the UW system impacts everything from business and agriculture to arts and education and how that impact is “improving life in the state, improving the economy, and improving social services.”

Laura Smythe, director of the University of Wisconsin's Pro Bono Program

Laura Smythe

“I was inspired by this bus trip to expand, in my own small way, what we are doing,” says Smythe. “And, it’s been a work in progress.”

In addition to securing the necessary funds to get mobile program rolling, the VLC team of student researchers needed to identify counties that had both the densest population of veterans and the least amount of access to social services.

Students also play an integral role in both the Madison-based and mobile VLC clinics themselves. While clients meet with an actual volunteer attorney, law students assist with research and document procurement, among other jobs. As Smythe points out, the students learn not only how to interview a client, but how to apply many of the laws they are learning in the classroom in a real world setting, something the school refers to as “law in action.”

“It’s a UW Law School motto and core value,” Smythe notes. “We don’t just teach our students what the law is and how to spot issues in any given context. We try to get them to understand the social needs that spurred the creation of a particular law and how laws impact people in different circumstances.”

In the coming months, Smythe hopes to grow the mobile VLC program by adding 4-6 clinics per year and, possibly, a specially outfitted van that would double as a private office.

“My dream is to cover all four corners of the state,” remarks Smythe,” to make sure that folks that need our service know that we do hit the road and can plan on seeing us.”

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John Tolley

John Tolley is a BTN.com contributor covering stories of inspiration, impact and innovation - on and off the field - in the areas of science, philanthropy and the arts.

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