MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A 63-year-old U.S. Army veteran from a rural area in West Virginia had been battling with a neighbor over a land dispute for more than 10 years.
The neighbor had been using an easement on the veteran’s property to gain access to a county road.
Frustrated, bewildered and unable to afford a lawyer, the veteran turned to students at West Virginia University’s College of Law who took the case through the Veterans’ Assistance Project.
The students won the case and left the veteran, who requested anonymity, with a unique perspective on their courtroom prowess.
“Fifteen minutes,” he said. “It took 15 minutes from the time the jury left the courtroom until the time they returned. I remember looking at my watch. And the verdict was 100 percent unanimous for us.”
Not all the cases the WVU students handle proceed so smoothly, and, in fact, the students said the work leading up to the property dispute case was arduous.
But through the Veterans Assistance Project, a partnership between the College of Law and the Clarksburg-based Louis A. Johnson VA Healthcare System that began last year, WVU continues its mission of service to the state. The project is the newest of eight clinics the College offers and is composed of four students, divided into two teams, who handle a variety of civil cases such as custody issues, divorce, property issues, Social Security and more.
The services are free and clients are referred through social workers at the VA and picked by WVU on the basis of financial need or uniqueness.
Along with helping to fill a crucial need for the state, the cases offer rare, “practice ready” experiences for the students, who serve as practicing attorneys from preparation to verdict.
“I worked for a large (law) firm with litigators who have been practicing for eight years that never have gotten to do a jury trial,” said Amber Brugnoli, an adjunct faculty member at the College of Law who supervises the students. “These students are going to do two before they even graduate from law school.”
Kristin Taylor of Huttonsville and Josh Miller of Princeton are one team while Josh Johnson of Fort Gay and John McCartney of Felton, Del. make up the other. Each is a third-year student.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from helping the veterans,” Miller said. “They make it a lot easier for you too because of their training. They get back to you quickly. They answer the phone or call you right back. Any document you need, it’s, ‘I’ll send it right now or drive it up to you.’ They’ve had so much discipline from early in their life it makes it easy to work with them.”
Miller and Taylor recently helped settle a custody case that involved a serviceman who returned from duty to learn he’d fathered a child. The case went before a mediator and took seven hours before a settlement was reached. While awkward at times, the mediation process proved to be a valuable learning experience for the student team.
“Seven hours of mediation is very long, especially for that type of case,” Taylor said. “You had to hear all the different parties talk. You had to sit there and hear all the bad stuff. It was really uncomfortable, actually.”
Along with the property dispute, Johnson and McCartney are working on a case in which Brian Griffith, a veteran from Clarksburg, and his family are seeking to recover money from a contractor who installed a faulty floor in his newly-built home.
“I was going to try to go to court myself and represent us but then we found out about (the Veterans Assistance Project),” said Griffith, a former U.S. Marine. “I’m glad we did. I wouldn’t have known half the stuff I had to do. With contract law, there are a lot of requirements and deadlines, certain ways you have to do everything or it doesn’t count. The students have been a lot of help and have done a great job. We’d have never been able to (represent ourselves) or hire someone. It would have been too much.”
The students are glad to help.
“It’s nice that this guy’s benefits don’t have to go to paying an attorney or that he doesn’t have to suffer,” Johnson said. “The attorney’s fees that he’d have to pay would be pretty outrageous. It would be cheaper just to deal with a bad floor. So it’s nice to know that we’re able to do that for him and for him to get a benefit for having served.”
Johnson and McCartney said they’ve enjoyed the processes of each case as it unfolds but are especially grateful for having gone through the property case. Although it involved traveling to a rural area and visiting the property during a highly contentious and longstanding feud between neighbors, the students also received their first extended taste of the legal process outside the classroom. Going to court was exciting, the students said, but the entire process was challenging and rewarding.
“It’s not just going to the trial on the day of the trial,” McCartney said. “There’s pre-trial motions, preliminary hearings, jury selection—there’s so many components to build up to that day. What I learned the most from it is the preparation involved in getting there.”
While the students gained knowledge, the property verdict brought a measure of relief and satisfaction to the veteran.
“Josh and John were excellent and professional in their field,” he said. “I would recommend them to any veteran – I think using the school at WVU is a good idea. It gives them experience and us a good return. It’s nice that the school cares enough about veterans to try to serve and help us.”
The idea for Veterans’ Assistance Project evolved through discussions with Stephen Butera, regional council for the VA system, and WVU. In 2011, the VA issued a directive that allowed hospitals to make space available for services such as legal help. A few weeks later, WVU signed an agreement with the Louis A. Johnson System. College of Law graduate and veteran Tom Yanni was instrumental in helping forge the partnership and consults with the students from time to time.
The work of WVU’s law clinics is paying off in other ways. Recently, the College of Law was picked as a recipient of the 2012 Excellence in Pro Bono Award from the national rating service Super Lawyers. The award was given to recognize the clinical law program’s volunteer legal services to the poor, disadvantaged and exploited.
The clinics were established in 1976 and provide more than 22,000 hours of pro bono legal aid and more than 20,000 other volunteer hours each year. Supervised by law professors, the clinics serve the public while exposing students to all phases of lawyering, including drafting briefs, trial advocacy, negotiating, and interviewing.
The WVU College of Law operates nine clinics: Civil Practice Clinic; Child & Family Law Clinic with Medical-Legal Partnership; Entrepreneurship Law Clinic; Immigration Law Clinic; Innocence Project; Low Income Tax Clinic; Land Use & Sustainable Development Law Clinic; United States Supreme Court Clinic; and the Veterans’ Assistance Project.
By Dan Shrensky