By: Casey Connolly, J.D. ’19
I distinctly recall Betsy Gwin, a clinical instructor in the Veterans Legal Clinic, telling us on our first day: “You’ll never forget your first client.”
I was admittedly nervous to meet mine. As a law student planning to enter the JAG Corps post-graduation with no prior military experience, I hoped that working in the Clinic would help me better understand and address the legal issues faced by service-members, veterans, and their families. And the first step towards accomplishing those goals was actually meeting with a veteran and helping them work through their legal issues–a level of responsibility that felt overwhelming as a 2L who had never engaged in direct legal services before. But with the training and support of the Clinic–which included extensive reading, exercises, and conversations with my clinical instructors and fellow students–I was able to feel more confident when walking into the room to meet with a client for the first time. We started chatting, and soon I found myself mesmerized by the strength and optimism of a veteran who had faced unimaginable struggles in their lifetime.
From that day, I spent the next two years working with many other clients in a variety of ways that helped me hone my skills as a lawyer. I performed client intake; interviewed witnesses; collected records; drafted letters of support, administrative appeals, and discharge upgrade petitions; and argued in an administrative hearing.
Then, in December 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims issued an order scheduling oral argument for two plaintiffs and a proposed class of veterans represented by the Harvard Veterans Legal Clinic and co-counsel Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick. The argument was scheduled for February 1st, so when the Clinic offered me and Laurel Fresquez ’19 the opportunity to argue the case, we had six weeks to prepare. This seemed like a daunting task given that neither of us had previously worked on the case. But under the guidance of our supervising attorneys, we spent those next six weeks poring over briefing and case law, debating strategy, and building and mooting arguments. This process allowed us both to further develop our skills as lawyers, and to gain deeper insight into the convoluted world of veterans law.
Our case tried to cut to the heart of that convolution by asking the Court to exercise its newly-announced class action powers to grant relief to a group of veterans who have been harmed by the VA Secretary’s application of an unlawful standard. It was an honor to represent these veterans, who had the right to have their claims adjudicated under the correct standard–and who might not otherwise see that right fully vindicated without the class action mechanism. I am grateful to the Veterans Legal Clinic and CCK for the chance to argue such an important and historic case alongside an incredible group of co-counsel and supervising attorneys.
And while this case was the most exciting and high-profile of the cases that I worked on with the Clinic, Betsy was right: I’ll never forget my first client. In fact, that first client was also my last. In spring of 2019, we received news from the VA that we had won that client’s administrative appeal after nearly 3 years of fighting (culminating in an extremely adversarial hearing that tested all of our resolve). Walking into the local VA hospital with Betsy and the client to help them gain access to their newly awarded benefits was the quiet highlight of my law school career. I am thankful to the Clinic and the client for trusting me with the sometimes-terrifying, sometimes-thrilling, always-rewarding responsibility of being an advocate.