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Monday, June 18, 2007

Pro bono CLE credit; A veteran's view

The following is excerpted from my editor's column in this week's Minnesota Lawyer. The full column is available to Minnesota Lawyer subscribers by clicking here (password required).

It was 2001 and my future client — a Vietnam War veteran — was threatening to kill himself with a knife. When the police came to take him in for psychological care, he was reporting hearing voices and insisting that the year was 1901. When he later applied for veterans’ benefits for his treatment, his claim was denied. He spent the next few years locked in the labyrinth of the Veteran’s Administration bureaucracy.

How did I wind up representing this man?

A couple of years ago, I responded to then-Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz’s pro bono challenge by signing up to participate in the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program. ...

Why this program? I liked the idea of providing assistance to someone who served our country. It was also not a prolonged commitment since participants were only required to handle one appeal. ...

Since the 2001 incident, my client had received treatment for depression, bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. He was again functional and working as a day laborer. Although he received a small monthly stipend from the government for his service-related breathing difficulties, his claims for benefits for the psychological disorders had been repeatedly denied over the years [as not service-related]. ...

After getting a final agency denial, he appealed to the Court of U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. ...

After I prepared and filed the brief, my client and I were finally able to reach an agreement with the government. The adverse finding on my client’s psychological conditions was vacated and the case remanded back to the VA. The government admitted that there was insufficient medical testimony on the record for an adverse benefit determination to be made.

I couldn’t help but smile. One veteran had taken on the government of the United States of America and gotten it to say that it was wrong. It truly is a great country we live in.

Of course, my client’s case was not over. This just gave him a chance to be examined by a doctor and to make his case on an even playing field. But it is a good feeling to be a part in helping to make sure that someone has access to justice. I can see how Legal Aid lawyers and public defenders might get addicted to it. ...

The Minnesota Supreme Court is currently considering whether or not to make continuing legal education credits available for pro bono work. I am in support of the concept. I learned a lot more working with that one veteran than I could in a host of CLE classes — although I must admit that I do like the free chocolate chip cookies you get with the CLE programs.


Peter said...

Was the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program funded by the Legal Services Corporation? That is, would you have received CLE credit under the rule as it exists now?

Mark Cohen, editor said...

Good question. I suspect (without looking into it) that it is not funded by LSC, hence no pro bono credit would be available under the current Supreme Court rule. (Of course, I did not get any pro bono credit anyway, since there was no pro bono CLE rule when I did this. The only credit I got was for the training course, not the actual work.)

In any event, the Supreme Court is in the process of revamping the pro bono CLE rule because of the glitch which you point out (i.e. complications arising from limiting its application mostly to LSC-funded groups). It remains to be seen whether or not the revised rule will cover pro bono work for entities such as the consortium.

Personally, I hope it does -- although I doubt whether or not CLE credit is available will be the decisive factor for most folks considering participation in a worthy program like this.