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New lawyers and military veterans both benefit from school’s legal clinic

Posted Feb 1, 2013 3:50 AM CDT
By Rachel M. Zahorsky

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Photo of Rachel M. Zahorsky by Marc Hauser.

In her own words, Kyndra K. Rotunda had a bee in her bonnet. The Chapman University law professor had turned away another case from a struggling military veteran—one too complicated for her clinic students to handle. But the matter would have been perfect for a new lawyer, and Rotunda knew too many who hadn’t worked since graduation.

The solution: Create a legal residency program at the Orange, Calif., law school that now houses five recent graduates who earn stipends while providing pro bono representation to military personnel and veterans. With more than $1.2 million in seed money, Chapman University’s Institute for Military Personnel, Veterans, Human Rights & International Law & AMVETS Legal Clinic launched in August 2011 and added two more graduates in January. The new lawyers manage their own caseloads, conduct policy work to educate lawmakers on veterans issues and participate in classroom seminars and weekly in-depth case examinations with mentors to bridge the gap between academics and practice.

HONING SKILLS

“I see this as a pathway that gives you all of the tools you need to survive in the legal field,” says Josh Flynn-Brown, a second-year fellow in the program. As many of his former classmates struggle to find work or worry about cranking out billable hours as associates, Flynn-Brown says he believes the wide variety of civil actions and direct client interactions under his belt will give him an advantage when he’s thrust into the job market at the end of the year. Institute fellows receive stipends comparable to the salaries of entry-level public interest lawyers and get full health benefits, substantially funded by the AMVETS Department of California, the California Community Foundation and the Jewish Communal Fund.

“The skills we’ve learned with Kyndra will benefit our entire career,” Flynn-Brown says. “I’m looking forward to branching out and seeing what I can do on the open market.”

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Since the economic downturn, more and more law schools have been establishing post-grad incubators to aid small groups of their recent graduates by providing training and support systems.

“Law schools have to really take a second look at the ways we prepare students for practice,” says Rotunda, an associate professor and executive director of the institute and clinic. “These are bright, young people who want to work, and we’re graduating them into a really bad job market. This type of program gives students extra learning and time to hone their skills.”

While most of the recent post-grad programs focus on developing sole practitioners, nearly all the incubators serve a second purpose of serving the swelling number of moderate- and middle-income Americans who lack access to affordable legal services.

Three of Rotunda’s fellows retained nearly 60 cases last year, recovering nearly $5 million for clients. Fifteen students from the University of California at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall took on 20 more cases through a collaborative effort overseen by Rotunda. The need for legal help for veterans and military personnel who earn just over the limit to qualify for free legal assistance but cannot afford a private lawyer could keep more than 20 fellows busy full time, Rotunda says.

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