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Law students help military families through clinic

March 09, 2010

In what has become an especially emotional endeavor, students at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law who have a military connection are helping the families of active-duty military and veterans at the Civil Justice Clinic.

Marcy Karin, associate clinical professor, and director of the Work-Life Policy Unit, recently recalled watching a student, Patrick Camunez, an Army captain in the National Guard. Camunez was in uniform, talking on the phone to a client serving in Afghanistan.

"The symbolism really hit me," Karin said. "They're helping their brothers and sisters. Patrick has served abroad. He and these other men and women are putting their lives at risk. We need to do what we can to help them."

Camunez, who has worked on cases involving equal employment opportunity, foreclosure, equity skimming, and unemployment insurance, said there is a special connection with the military.

"It is a family," he said. "At some level there is a shared experience that everyone goes through. Whether it is basic training, being deployed, or just knowing how the system operates, you can always find some way to relate to someone else that has been in the military. It is funny because even talking to Vietnam vets who are much older than me we are able to connect on a certain level."

Paul Schiff Berman, dean of the College of Law, said the effort helps military families while teaching students.

"Through our legal clinics, the College of Law directly serves those in our community most in need of legal services while training generations of law students to be public-spirited lawyers," Berman said. "This initiative is the first of a series of efforts we are spearheading to try to help the military families that give so much for our country."

The Civil Justice Clinic has 10-16 students each semester. Last fall, three of the 10 students were active in the military and many others have family members in the service. Clinic staff have also served our country and have children who recently returned from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Karin said it pointed out to her the large number of military families in the Valley and what a huge impact the ongoing wars have had locally. At the same time, she learned of several law students who planned to join the Judge Advocate General's Corps of the military after graduation. She saw a perfect connection, and the clinic began taking on cases referred by the American Bar Association Military Pro Bono Project and from local JAG offices.

Servicemen and women (and their families) often have legal issues that arise from deployment, including reduction in income that can make loan repayment difficult, the need to move before a lease is up, and concerns about their jobs. Sometimes there are also issues when people return from service, involving reemployment with civilian jobs or time off to care for injuries obtained during service.

But servicemembers have some unique legal protections, through the Uniform Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which protects the job of a guardsman or reservist called to duty and special provisions for military families in the Family Medical Leave Act, as well as consumer and housing protections in the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which apply when a servicemember has to leave because of deployment or other service.

"There are a number of potential civil actions occurring right now," Karin said. "But there are not enough lawyers who understand the unique situations servicemembers may be in or, frankly, who can afford to take on these cases. There's usually very little money involved and, despite maintaining local ties, the clients are not always local anymore. For example, we have clients who are Valley soldiers currently living in Germany or who have been deployed to Afghanistan. A lawyer in private practice may have a hard time taking on these cases. So there is a huge need."

The cases provide great experience for the students, Karin said.

In one of the cases, a student wrote to the general counsel of a lender and explained the situation and the law, which required the lender to reduce the interest rate. Instead of going to court, the Clinic received a letter from the general counsel congratulating it on the student's work, agreeing to the new terms, and wishing the student well in his career.

"The students are learning that you don't always have to sue," Karin said. "Sometimes a letter or conversation informing the party of the law and offering to negotiate works just as well. They are learning that civil litigation actually can be civil. And if you need to go to court to resolve the matter, the law can be on your client's side."

Another student working in the clinic, Meghan McCauley, is a member of the Air Force ROTC and plans to join JAG after graduation. Her brother, a Community Programs Sergeant for the Phoenix Police Department, is also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force in the Office of Special Investigations and has been deployed several times. Her father is a Vietnam veteran.

"They are an inspiration to me," she said.

While in the clinic, McCauley worked on a team that drafted a white paper that, among other things, helped highlight employment laws and policies that support servicemembers, vets, and their families in Arizona.

"Policy work is a whole different side of the law," McCauley said. "You learn that wording is an important aspect of policy work because language affects the coverage and interpretation of laws, and you want to make sure there are not unintended consequences for your clients."

Camunez said he is proud that the Clinic is taking on the issue.

"There is a huge veteran population in Arizona," he said. "These veterans are often unaware of the services available to them. Based on the population there is simply not enough services to go around, much less legal assistance."

And Camunez said he gets a special satisfaction from the work.

"I sympathize with their situations and I often know someone who has been in a similar position," he said. "So it often feels like I am helping an old friend, an old solider, or a colleague."

Karin said the policy issues that students are working on are cutting-edge, issues of high interest to First Lady Michelle Obama and other stakeholders who believe in supporting our military families.

"These students are getting a unique experience advocating for clients in their community, and the skills they are learning apply to problems right now," she said.

If you know a service member who is in need of legal assistance for a consumer, housing or employment-related problem, and would like to seek the assistance of the Clinic, you may call (480) 965-6968.

Judy Nichols,
(480) 727-7895
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law