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Veterans clinic marks nearly $90K client award, spurs student success

Since fall 2023, Emory Law’s Volunteer Clinic for Veterans (VCV) has built initiatives to enhance students’ experience and increase its volunteer roster. The VCV also recently logged a victory which resulted in a life-changing award for a veteran client who had sought relief on their own for seven years. 

VCV’s recent appeal success

In late February, the VCV successfully resolved a client's VA disability benefits appeal. The client received approximately $88,000 in back pay and will receive monthly payments moving forward, marking the highest compensation awarded because of clinic efforts in the past 18 months.

"Before reaching out to us, the veteran had pursued his claim pro se for seven years," said VCV Fellow Xuting Zhang 22L said. "His case involved a legal error that surpassed his pro se capacity and required legal intervention." VCV initially filed an appeal and secured a favorable outcome in October 2023.

However, the case was sent back for further review, which required a second appeal. “Throughout the eight-month journey, the VCV team and the veteran shared the ups and downs together, ultimately resolving the case,” Zhang said.

Khalil Coleman, who joined the clinic as a part-time paralegal in November 2023, closely monitored the case’s development. “While the veteran’s back pay is impressive, seeing his mental and emotional relief is what I find truly fulfilling in my work at the clinic.”

After receiving the award, the veteran treated VCV staff to breakfast and lunch, which they shared with 50 more law students. As a result, more students inquired about how to volunteer.

"This is the latest example of the wonderful and impactful work that VCV is doing for Georgia veterans," said Vice Dean Margo A. Bagley, who supervises the clinic. 

Conversation templates and student success

“Veterans law is a lesser-known field, so sometimes students aren’t sure if they can contribute,” said Zhang. “To help with that, we created a student handbook that covers various intake situations and includes scripted conversation templates.” The clinic’s student volunteer numbers have since risen from 15 in fall to 24 this spring. Zhang says he is encouraged that all fall 1L volunteers returned for spring semester and encouraged peers to join.

Yiwen Pan 26L was the first international student to volunteer and hadn’t previously engaged in client communication. “My task was to call veterans to verify their eligibility based on low-income criteria and collect their contact information,” Pan said. “I was nervous, and thought I might miss important details, but the conversation templates helped me to stay on track when I felt overwhelmed.”

Allison Carter 26L and Emma Barnes 26L joined the VCV just a few weeks into their first year. They teamed up on a document review for a discharge upgrade case, which involved scrutinizing hundreds of pages of military records. "It’s quite unusual for 1Ls to engage in document review, given their focus on studying doctrinal case law," Zhang said.

"I would encourage incoming Emory Law students interested in advocacy or seeking practical legal experience to explore volunteering with the VCV," Barnes said.

The experience also helped students secure summer internships. Carter, for instance, landed a position in a Big Law summer program. "Everywhere I interviewed, they were very impressed with my VCV experience,” Carter said. “I've accepted a position with Bryan Cave this summer.”

“Many first-generation law students enter law school without any prior legal experience, which can make it difficult for them to stand out among other job applicants," Zhang said. "Having volunteer experience significantly transforms a student’s profile, as it speaks volumes about being proactive and dedicated."

New project to expand collaboration

The VCV is currently working on a pilot project that aims to pair law students with volunteer attorneys to jointly represent clinic clients. It was inspired by the clinic’s reconnection with student co-founder Martin Bunt 14L, who will receive Emory Law’s Young Alumni Award this year. Before VCV hired its own full-time employee, the clinic’s primary approach was to pair law student externs with pro bono attorneys from Atlanta law firms. There were more than 100 participants in 2014. VCV is now in discussions with two mid-size law firms to revive the practice, which will allow a larger caseload and improve turnaround time. Zhang anticipates the pilot project will also further increase VCV’s student participation.

Students say the VCV enriches their classroom experience. Charles Jessup 26L, a reservist in the Army National Guard, cited the VCV as his key reason for choosing Emory Law. The clinic complements doctrinal learning, he said. “This experience has enabled me to see firsthand how law practitioners use legal tools to help people in a potentially life-altering way.”

Christina Ocean 26L, who participated in the VCV's quarterly Wills Clinic twice, said the pop-up estate planning clinics improved her understanding of property law and professional communication.


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