- By Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
Austin attorney Nikki Maples remembers the first time she walked into the Austin Department of Veterans Affairs clinic as part of a new program to give free legal services to veterans.
Maples came from a military family — her ex-husband had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan — and she felt a powerful need to volunteer her time at the clinic. But she wasn’t prepared for the number of veterans lined up in the waiting room and down the hallway in dire need of legal help. Some were facing evictions. Others were involved in child custody battles. Still others had been wrongfully denied government benefits.
“At first, it was overwhelming,” Maples said. “But at the end of the day, I saw a lot of veterans smiling and I thought, ‘This is a really good thing.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Since that day in 2011, the Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans program has spread throughout the state, where it is administered by local bar chapters. The State Bar of Texas says that, since the project launched in 2010, more than 9,000 attorneys have volunteered time to help more than 28,000 veterans.
Now, Texas bar officials are aiming to take the program nationwide and offering their expertise to counterparts in other states. So far, about two dozen states have expressed interest in replicating the Texas program, said Terry Tottenham, former president of the Texas Bar Association, who launched the project.
“We know that the need is there and the program is easy to implement,” said Tottenham, a Marine veteran. “It’s just a matter of getting the word out to bar associations around the country.”
The cornerstone of the expansion is the “clinic in a box,” which contains legal forms, benefits applications and office supplies, that the Texas bar is sending to its counterparts across the country.
And last year, the American Bar Association launched a nationwide initiative to provide pro bono legal services for veterans.
Victor Ledesma, 70, who fought in Vietnam in the late 1960s, went to the Austin clinic this summer for help in drafting a will.
“They answered all my questions, gave me feedback,” he said. “I would encourage other veterans to go to them because they were really great. If not for them, I would have been at a total loss. I wouldn’t have known who to call or where to go.”
The Texas program, which was based on an initiative of the Houston Bar Association, was a response to high levels of poverty and homelessness among Texas veterans. A 2010 VA study found that Texas had one of the nation’s highest rates of veteran homelessness.
Maples, a family lawyer, said a lot of veterans she meets at the clinics need help with such legal matters as child support, divorce proceedings and trouble with apartment leases. Some are simply in search of a friendly ear.
The volunteer lawyers offer legal advice, help veterans fill out forms or refer veterans to resources for free or low-cost legal help. Sometimes they represent the veterans in their legal cases.
“They are superappreciative,” Maples said. “They feel validated. It empowers them.”