Indigent and low-income veterans living in South Carolina will soon have access to free legal services thanks to a new Veterans Legal Clinic that will open Monday, July 2 at the University of South Carolina School of Law.
Approximately 400,000 military veterans live in South Carolina, many of whom were deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones after Sept. 11, 2001. These veterans face multiple challenges when they return to the U.S. — from finding employment and managing disabilities to grappling with the mental health consequences of deployments.
The challenges often result in financial and legal issues that disrupt their ability to reintegrate into their families and communities. The Department of Veterans Affairs has identified legal services as one of the most significant unmet needs of homeless and poor veterans.
The School of Law’s Veterans Legal Clinic will address this demand by offering free legal services to indigent veterans or military families unable to afford a private lawyer. The clinic will handle legal issues that include financial, housing, guardianship, custody, divorce and accessing public benefits.
“Essentially, we want to help solve the problems that are preventing our veterans from finding or keeping a job or housing, so they can get back on their feet and continue improving our communities here locally just as effectively as they did while serving,” says Clyde “Bennett” Gore Jr., director of the clinic, who is also a School of Law alumnus and a veteran.
Gore says the clinic will do more than just benefit veterans.
Law students will gain valuable real-world experience by representing these clients under the supervision of Gore and other practicing attorneys through the South Carolina Supreme Court’s Student Practice Rule. Students will work the cases in the fall and spring semesters while the clinic’s staff attorneys will accept clients and move existing cases forward when the law school is not in session.
The experience of working with veterans will prepare students to enter the field of veterans law, a rapidly growing area of private practice, after graduation.
The Veterans Law Clinic also will work closely with the Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough Center on Professionalism at the School of Law to develop a comprehensive state-level assessment of veteran legal needs in South Carolina. Because no such assessment currently exists, this data will be extremely valuable for understanding the scope and nature of veterans’ legal needs and form a baseline for measuring the effectiveness of different types of service.
The clinic is housed on the third floor of the School of Law, located at 1525 Senate St. Hours of operation will be 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. weekdays. It will follow the university’s holiday schedule.
Veterans interested in seeing whether their legal problem can be solved by the clinic should call 803-777-2278 or visit the law school’s clinic webpage and complete the intake form. The clinic gathers basic information and conducts a screening process to identify cases.
The idea of the clinic emerged from a national symposium on veterans’ access to justice, hosted by the NMRS Center on Professionalism in December 2016. Law Dean Robert M. Wilcox heard about the dire need of veterans across the country and committed the law school to get involved.
“Hearing from national experts about the scope of legal struggles our veterans face was a pivotal moment for me,” Wilcox says. “I knew this was an area where we could make a big impact for our community and state, while also providing a whole new clinical experience for students. And the idea really took off. I couldn’t be more pleased with the response, and how quickly we were able to get this program launched.”
The initial work of the clinic is made possible by a grant from the South Carolina Bar Foundation and the Boeing Company.