Feb 08

Law Students Serve Veterans

Published on: Monday, February 8, 2010

Third year University of St. Thomas School of Law student Peter Williams had just welcomed home his fiancé from her deployment overseas when his soon-to-be father in-law left for his deployment. Witnessing other families welcoming their loved ones home and wishing them well as they left struck a chord with Williams and he knew he had to do something.

“I saw the great strain on families of other service members that were coming back and no families of service members who were leaving,” Williams said. “After that, I came to school and spoke with everyone I could about doing something to help these families that were struggling.”

After a few dead ends Williams walked into Sara Sommarstrom’s office and told her he wanted to start a Veteran’s Clinic.  Sommarstrom is the Minnesota Justice Foundation’s Staff Attorney at the School of Law and had ironically just gotten off the phone with a representative from the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV) who was looking to host a child support clinic for veterans. Currently, Veterans Affairs (VA) does not assist veterans with child support issues.

“The timing was incredible,” Sommarstrom said, noting she had literally hung up the phone with the MACV representative as Williams entered her office to discuss the possibility of hosting a veterans clinic. 

UST law students helped MJF, the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans and other partners host a child support clinic for veterans at the VA in Minneapolis on November 13, 2009. The brief advice and services legal clinic provided child support assistance to homeless and low-income veterans.  In a few short hours, students helped more than 20 veterans with attorney advice, forms assistance, and follow-up services coordinated by Williams. 

Along with Williams, UST first year law students Amanda Mortwedt, and Kurtis Young participated in the clinic.  About a half-dozen law students from William Mitchell and one UST School of Law graduate, Michael Kemp, also volunteered.

“Many veterans are on their fourth or fifth deployment of this war,” Williams said. “The need for more services for veterans is great and becoming greater.”

Williams is a member of the UST Public Service Board and is heavily involved in local veteran’s law initiatives including a push to start a Hennepin County veteran’s court. Williams first teamed up with other students to serve a veteran’s family on Public Service Day last fall. Williams took a group of UST law students to a military family’s house and performed yard work. “The students who came with me were such troopers because we ended up doing hard labor the entire day while it was 40 degrees and raining,” Williams said.

Even more promising, is that the ABA and VA are partnering to replicate this type of veteran’s clinic and will likely use the project as a national model. Further, the ABA recently named Sommarstrom to its Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, a 13-person commissioned named by the ABA president to address the legal issues and standards related to serving those experiencing homelessness and living in poverty.

Williams and Sommarstrom plan on hosting another legal clinic for veterans this March in Ramsey County in which they will offer legal advice and help to veterans for consumer protection issues and other financial issues.

“We’re hoping to serve even more veterans this time around,” Sommarstrom said. “Especially since the focus of the upcoming clinic, financial issues,  affects so many veterans.”

Williams encouraged any students with interest in assisting with the upcoming clinic to contact him. “I was surprised at how much of an impact the clinic had, and how rewarding it was for the students who helped,” Williams said. 

More information regarding the clinic in March will be available soon. In the meantime, anyone interested in helping at the clinic can contact Peter Williams at will7769@stthomas.edu.

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