Since World War II, millions of soldiers have received a “less than honorable discharge” from the United States military.
While it may not be something that many people think about every day, many veterans are ineligible to receive benefits due to their discharge status. Of 22 million military veterans in the country, 380,000 of them currently reside in Massachusetts. Last week, a panel of professionals dedicated to helping these veterans get the help they need held a panel discussion at the BBA.
The training focused on the legal means available to veterans to challenge the status of their discharge. According to Dana Montalto, an attorney at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School who focuses on veterans’ issues, there are many reasons why veterans seek a discharge status upgrade.
For some, “It’s personal,” she said. “Serving your country is honorable.”
In many cases, veterans with a less than honorable discharge are barred from receiving benefits from the VA, and if they are disabled, their families and communities are tasked with filling the gap.
“It’s a national trend that more and more attorneys are beginning to take on these cases,” Montalto said, highlighting the need for more attorneys with the proper training.
The panel also included Scott Thompson, Executive Director of the Board for Correction of Naval Records, Joseph Materson, Senior Legal Advisor to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, and Evan Seamone, Major and Senior Defense Counsel, U.S. Army Reserve, who is a professor at Mississippi College of Law.
Whatever the development project, large or small, if it goes up in Boston, there’s a good chance the Boston Redevelopment Authority was involved in the process at some point. And this summer, local teenagers will have the chance to see that process up-close.
The BRA has signed on to hire a Summer Jobs student through the Boston Bar Association, and we are thrilled to have their support.
Kathleen Joyce, Senior Counsel at the BRA, said the student will take part in hands-on work that is truly relevant to the BRA’s projects.
“At the BRA, we believe it is extremely valuable to play a part in educating our future leaders,” she said. “We are thrilled to join the legal community in their support of Mayor Walsh’s Summer Jobs Initiative by hiring a student through the BBA Summer Jobs Program. We are proud to say that we will give the student in this position opportunities to take on a substantive role in our work, by participating in research projects and attending BRA trainings and other BRA meetings.”
While the staff at the BRA is eager to give the student a chance to build his or her skills and resume, the experience will also be valuable to the agency.
“Hiring a summer jobs student is a great way to bring on extra support for our legal department while providing a place for a student to learn professional skills and become acquainted with the processes that shape their community,” she said.
Want to find out more about the program? Visit our website or contact Cassandra Shavney at email@example.com.
This month, Beyond the Billable is thrilled to feature Goodwin Procter’s Neighborhood Business Initiative (NBI) in our “Pro Bono Spotlight” feature. There is a lot to say about all the good the program has done for low-income neighborhoods in the city of Boston, but no one says it better than the attorneys themselves.
We caught up with NBI Founder Anna Dodson, a partner in Goodwin’s Private Equity Group, to hear more about what the firm is doing to help grow the local economy while expanding access to justice.
Can you describe how the Neighborhood Business Initiative began?
In 2001, the idea of providing pro bono legal services to for-profit businesses was in its infancy. We began offering those services, which would later be formalized into Goodwin’s Neighborhood Business Initiative (NBI). We believe that strong, owner-operated neighborhood businesses are fundamentally important for community development and healthy, vibrant city neighborhoods.
Fast-forward to today: Roughly 500 attorneys and other professionals at Goodwin have provided pro bono business legal services to hundreds of low-income entrepreneurs and small-business owners in underserved neighborhoods through direct representation and neighborhood-based legal workshops and clinics, and by partnering with community-based organizations.
Since 2001, how has the NBI program changed and grown?
Our workshops and other programs have grown both in number and in complexity. We started with the basics – Starting and Growing a Business, developed in collaboration with the Economic Justice Project of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. Now our suite of 12+ programs includes negotiations, commercial lease, choice of entity, food labelling and doing business on-line.
Is there a particular workshop or clinic that has consistently been the most sought-after or well-attended? If so, what do you think draws people to that program?
As we worked with community partners in Dorchester and Jamaica Plain over the years, we noticed that many of our program participants were working in the food industry. These “culinary entrepreneurs” include restaurateurs, caterers and entrepreneurs looking to produce food for retail sale. Responding to the need for specialized assistance, we developed a food labeling curriculum.
Today, a multi-disciplinary team provides interactive workshops on Intellectual Property for food labeling and packaging, food labels and products liability and federal regulation of food labels. Our team frequently collaborates with a corporate partner, such as Sam Adams Brewing the American Dream. The Boston Beer Company’s team presents the business side of food labeling – creative design, marketing and branding, as well as niche expertise like the rules for beer labels. Our audiences for these business and law of food labeling programs frequently exceed 50 entrepreneurs. We hear from our audiences that the information can be hard to find and that an expert’s insight and strategic perspective is a valuable guide that makes the information more useful.
How does this program benefit specific business owners who participate, their neighborhoods, and the city’s economy? Can you describe why Goodwin Procter has made it a priority to foster the development of small businesses in underserved areas?
From the outset, Goodwin’s NBI program has reflected two core values. We value access to justice (access to all law for all people) and community development (building neighborhood businesses for diverse, vibrant neighborhoods). Often, low income business owners are isolated – they may lack sounding boards and advocates. They have to take risks and may have to make hard choices – and often it’s not on a level playing field. Our goal in providing individual representation is to provide legal services to business owners who would not otherwise be able to have the assistance, and to create value that supports the growth of a neighborhood business.
How does this differ from other pro bono opportunities and programs that are out there, both for attorneys and clients?
Business law attorneys typically have fewer choices than litigators to provide pro bono legal services in an area of law that aligns with their practice. NBI offers Goodwin business law attorneys an opportunity to do good doing what they do best – structuring an entity, negotiating a contract, advising on intellectual property strategy, negotiating a lease, and any number of corporate and transactional matters. It offers an opportunity to develop the strong listening skills needed to undergird strong counseling skills. For the firm’s NBI clients, working with the Goodwin team offers highly responsive, proactive counsel committed to leveling the playing field.
Is there a specific client story or anecdote that you would like to share that exemplifies the impact of this program?
We represented an entrepreneur who was a Brazilian immigrant in taking out a loan from Accion, a nonprofit lender. Goodwin prepared a loan release in Portuguese that would be enforceable in Brazil, a condition to the new loan. Our client used the proceeds of her Accion loan for working capital and to repay a predatory lender who used intimidation tactics. Our legal services were an important component of a transaction that yielded peace of mind and safety for a low income businesswoman, and a well-stocked, woman-owned corner market for the neighborhood.
What else would you like someone who has never heard of this program before to know?
One of the biggest challenges of a program like Goodwin’s NBI is reaching eligible clientele. Most entrepreneurs and small business owners do not think or expect that they would qualify for pro bono assistance, so engaging with them requires a lot of outreach and education. We have made a concerted effort to connect with local business owners through partnering with community organizations, and personally going out into the community and offering clinics and workshops. At the same time, we are ever sensitive to the need to support small law firms in the neighborhoods, so we dedicate a lot of time and effort to vet potential clients to ensure that, but for our pro bono assistance, they could not otherwise afford to engage legal counsel for the matter requested. We also define the scope of our representation to discrete requests and do not provide ongoing assistance. We have essentially created a self-contained legal services group within our firm, and lead it with the assistance of two dozen Goodwin attorneys who serve on local NBI steering committees in Boston, New York and San Francisco.
Every Wednesday and Thursday volunteer attorneys assist landlords and tenants through the BBA Lawyer for a Day at the Boston Housing Court Program. VLP relies on volunteers to deliver pro bono services to those in need.
Daniel Nagin, Faculty Director of the Legal Services Center & Veterans Legal Clinic of Harvard Law School, recently sat down with us to talk about how the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic there has fared in its first year. With financial support from the Boston Bar Foundation, the IRS, and the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust, and the donation of time and resources of members of the private bar, the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic aims to increase access to legal aid for low-income taxpayers with legal problems related to taxes.
One of the priority populations the Clinic serves is low-income veterans. This year, tax attorneys from the Legal Services Center, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue and the IRS led a series of trainings at the BBA with the goal of recruiting pro bono attorneys to accept overflow cases from the Clinic. Nagin said over 35 attorneys and tax professionals signed on to our pro bono panel as a result of these trainings. In October, the Clinic also arranged a lunch time program at the BBA with the National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson.
These are the questions we asked about the Clinic’s successes and plans for its future:
Q: How would you sum up the Clinic’s first year?
A: There has been tremendous momentum due to a number of intersecting forces. First, there are a substantial number of people who have tax controversies with the IRS and no recourse. Understandably, they feel intimidated, overwhelmed, and often they have no idea that there are defenses available to them. Another force has been the interest from the private bar. There are many attorneys looking to do pro bono work in the area of tax law. We are gratified to the BBF’s partnership in bringing these forces together.
Q: What plans do you have for the Clinic’s future?
A: We are seeing an increasing number of taxpayers with issues with the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, so that is one area of our work that we are trying to build out. In the future we hope to address not only federal tax issues, but related state issues. Unfortunately, like many other segments of the community, low-income veterans often have not only one legal problem but multiple legal problems. So, we also have a substantial number of clients who are referred internally at the Legal Services Center from the Veterans Legal Clinic to the Tax Clinic when they contact us about veterans’ law issues but also have tax issues.
Q: Why do you think there is such a need for this type of clinic in the community?
A: It is not uncommon for people who have tax problems to be afraid and unsure what to do—which can lead to people doing nothing and letting deadlines and opportunities to challenge IRS claims pass . Our mission is to eliminate barriers and increase access to help, to make it as easy as possible for people in these situations to get legal representation. The Tax Clinic is now on the list of resources that the Tax Court gives to pro se litigants, so we now have cases referred to us through the Court itself. While we’re not happy that there is such a depth of need in the community, we are gratified to play a role in helping to close the access to justice gap.
Q: Can you share a specific instance of the Clinic helping a taxpayer in need?
A: The Clinic recently completed representation of a disabled combat veteran who had almost $200,000 in tax liability, but it was the result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder issues that made it extremely difficult for him to function and that led him into extreme financial distress . The Clinic developed the record to highlight his financial circumstances and developed medical evidence to demonstrate his service-connected mental health issues. In the end, the IRS made the decision to waive nearly the entirety of the tax liability. In another case, this one also involving a disabled veteran, the Clinic is fighting not only an incorrect IRS allegation that the client owes $500,000 in back taxes, but is also arguing that the IRS actually owes the client a refund as a result of seizing his funds to satisfy the incorrect liability. In addition to its work on individual cases of low income taxpayers, the Clinic is pursuing numerous systemic reform efforts to improve tax procedures and tax laws that harm low-income taxpayers.
Q: Why would you encourage an attorney to get involved with the Clinic?
A: There is a tremendous unmet need in the community. Our intake line is overwhelmed with clients seeking legal help who are unable to afford an attorney. Joining our pro bono panel will ensure that we are matching the incredible pro bono energy from the private bar with the pressing need that exists in the community. The cases are also very meaningful. It’s a powerful experience to help someone challenge the IRS when that person would otherwise go without an advocate and be left to his or her own devices in a complex and intimidating matter. The Taxpayer Advocate has done studies showing that taxpayers have a much higher success rate when they are represented. Additionally these cases present opportunities to learn and deepen understanding of tax procedure and the tax laws.
The New York Times Editorial Board recently gave their input on the issue of giving former inmates a fair shot when they leave prison, in a weekend editorial entitled “Labels Like ‘Felon’ Are an Unfair Life Sentence.” Their stance is evident from the headline, but the piece makes a series of compelling arguments for making it easier for convicts to rejoin society.
At the BBA, we run a series of workshops on civil legal issues through the BBA Reentry Education Program to help make probationers aware of the resources available to them. In light of the Times piece, we caught up with Lizbeth Ginsberg from Greater Boston Legal Services, who recently led a BBA Reentry Education Program session with participants in the CHOICE program on public benefits.
CHOICE is an intensive probation supervision program in the Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court. CHOICE offers young adult probationers the opportunity to pursue either educational or vocational goals as an alternative to incarceration.
Here is what Ginsberg had to say:
“I think it is important to do outreach to folks dealing with re-entry issues to give them information about benefits for which they may be eligible and which may provide critical support. I was also glad to see that some of the Committee for Public Counsel Services attorneys were very engaged and asking questions. My hope is that they’ll hold onto the information for future clients so that it might benefit other folks in addition to the CHOICE participants who were there for the presentation.”
Later this month, volunteer attorneys will hold a workshop on finding affordable housing for federal probationers who have recently left prison.
The BBA would like to highlight a paper authored by Dana Montalto, Staff Attorney & Liman Fellow at the Veterans Legal Clinic of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, a BBF grantee. The paper, titled Underserved: How the VA Wrongfully Excludes Veterans with Bad Paper, highlights how many of the men and women who served in the U.S. Armed Forces are cut off from veterans’ services and benefits because they were given a less-than-honorable discharge. They may have served in combat and have suffered physical or mental wounds, but are excluded access to much-needed treatment and support from federal and state veterans agencies because of their discharge status.
We hope you take time to read the paper here, but these are four takeaways:
Veterans with bad paper discharges are twice as likely to commit suicide and at a much higher risk of becoming homeless.
Veterans are four times as likely to be denied services and benefits today as during World War II. According to the paper, the devastating uptick is due almost entirely to the VA’s own discretionary policies, not any statute.
90% of post-2001 veterans with bad paper discharges haven’t been reviewed for eligibility by the VA, and are categorically turned away from healthcare and housing services.
The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps each have its own separation regulations and policies, with significant disparities. Thus, service members who engage in similar misconduct may receive different treatment.
Veterans with a bad-paper discharge must first apply to the VA to receive a Character of Discharge review or to the military review boards for a discharge upgrade, and that’s where lawyers can help.
To find out more about how you can get involved and assist veterans with their COD reviews, please mark your calendars for May 18th from 4:00 PM – 7:00 PM for a training session at the BBA designed to help lawyers handle discharge status upgrades. For more information, and to register, please click here.
The BBA Tax Exempt Organizations Section’s annual Charitable Board Service Workshop always draws a crowd, and this year was no exception.
The day was broken into two panels, the first of which discussed different types of board membership and traits that are desirable in a board member. The heads of three local nonprofits shared insights about the importance of an organization’s mission, how various boards are composed and what the role of a charitable board typically entails.
After lunch, attorneys who serve on boards of local charitable organizations spoke about their responsibilities. Nora Mann, Deputy Division Chief of the Non-Profit Organizations/Public Charities Division of the Attorney General’s Office, spoke about compliance issues, including appropriate documentation and filing tax forms.
Attendees were urged to check out the 17th Annual Board Connection hosted by the United Way on May 12 from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Click here for more information.
The BBA is all about giving members an opportunity to give back to the community as attorneys, using their expertise in the legal profession to benefit those who need it. But we also love to see them give back simply as Bostonians, like this group of attorneys did at the Annual Charles River Cleanup.
Kate Swartz, Co-Chair of the New Lawyer’s Section Public Service Committee, said the turnout was great and all of the attorneys had a great time clearing trash and debris from the banks of the Charles.
Volunteers from the BBA New Lawyers Section and Environmental Law Section, as well as the South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston made up the team. Over 3,000 volunteers participated in all, from organizations based all over the city.
If you are interested in upcoming volunteer opportunities, check out these events:
During 30 years of Law Day in the Schools, our volunteers have had so many wonderful opportunities to enter classrooms in Boston and interact with students from kindergarten all the way up through high school.
Anthony Scibelli (Barclay Damon) oversees a mock trial in a fifth grade class at Josiah Quincy Elementary School
This year’s topic of Miranda rights seemed especially to resonate with students. In elementary school classrooms, students were asked to determine whether the so-called “big, bad wolf” made infamous by the story of the three little pigs was truly guilty of a crime. They discussed the book “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, with remarkable maturity. Some classes even ended up with a hung jury, our volunteers have reported.
Saqib Hossain (Burns & Levinson)shows preschoolers at the Nathan Hale School what a courtroom looks like.
Meanwhile, high school students had pithy discussions about the history and case law surrounding Miranda rights. Some students were able to relate the lessons from the attorneys to their own lives, or to recent events in the news.
Heather Gamache (Prince Lobel) and BBA President-Elect Carol Starkey (Conn Kavanaugh Rosenthal Peisch & Ford) read to second graders at Mozart Elementary School.
More than 30 BBA sponsor firms have adopted a classroom this year. Over 1,500 students will be served by the program, which continues through the month of May. Click here to check out more photos from Law Day in the Schools!
Dusty Hecker and Nancy Puleo (Posternak Blankstein & Lund) in a first grade class at Samuel Adam Elementary School.