by Rachel Smith

Licensed attorneys are generally encouraged to volunteer and donate hours to the community through a pro bono network.  Although not a mandatory requirement in most jurisdictions, for some attorneys, such as military spouse attorneys, pro bono work can be at the core of one’s legal profession. While we face regular stints of unemployment and job searches, volunteer legal work provides a way for us to remain professionally active. Additionally, and perhaps of more importance, we regularly encounter veterans and military family members who need legal assistance. Often times, the legal assistance they need cannot be provided by their local Legal Assistance Office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG). [Cue the music.] Here comes MSJDN’s Justice for Military Families (JMF)!

JMF works directly with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). Military dependents dealing with the loss of a Service Member often find themselves needing assistance to navigate the legal complexities triggered upon the death of a military spouse. JMF recognized that TAPS needed assistance filling this void, and as a result, JMF now actively works with the organization, who receives requests from military dependents that need legal assistance in these unfortunate circumstances. The issues vary – estate issues for the deceased military service member, GI benefits, family law issues, etc. Military dependents contact TAPS with requests for legal assistance. TAPS then forwards that request to JMF. JMF has intake coordinators, such as myself, that work to connect the military dependents with attorneys in their specific geographical area that practice law in the required/requested legal area. We try to find an attorney that can provide legal services to the military family member on a pro bono or low bono basis.

When I first heard of MSJDN’s request for assistance with this new pro bono committee, I responded. Why? There were several reasons. First, I am not in my home state, where I am originally licensed, have practiced, and have a large professional network. Fortunately I am licensed in my new jurisdiction where I reside, but I have not lived here long enough to establish those connections. Second, I was working at that time, but it was grant work and not a permanent position.  As a practical matter, this therefore became a way for me to remain professionally active. Third, my entire legal profession has been in legal services. Throughout my professional career, I regularly come across people in the community that require legal assistance. Often times, people just need to be informed as to what legal resources are available to them and be pointed in the right direction. I’m certain other MSJDN members can relate to me when I say that I have been approached by numerous people in the community- random people, friends, and/or family members- with legal questions and what they should do. It often takes a guiding hand to explain some basic parameters and point them in the right direction. Therefore, JMF was right down my alley.

Let me tell you, this has been quite an experience. When I was in high school, a dear family friend told me an Einstein quote, “The day you stop learning is the day you die.” I still believe in that philosophy. JMF has been such a learning experience for me. My experience through JMF is a microcosm of what society is, as a whole. There will always be people who need legal assistance, in whatever manner or form. It’s often simply a matter of knowing where to turn and being told the parameters.

I have also learned that JMF is met with many challenges. For example, we have intake coordinators across the country. The clients we receive from TAPS are also all over the country. What’s the result of a diaspora of clients? Jurisdictional issues.

I am originally from California. Because it is such a large and highly populated state, I thought my legal knowledge and professional contacts would be helpful. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case. Most of the TAPS clients I have received are on the East Coast or the South. For example, among the numerous cases I received from TAPS, only a few clients were in California. One of the few California clients I did receive was in Central Valley and not in Southern California where most of my network is concentrated. As a result, the client was not in an area where my professional contacts provided much help. Even though I knew of a legal services organization that could provide services in the area of law the client needed assistance because my client was not a resident of Los Angeles, she was prevented from receiving those services. This is often the case for individual attorneys seeking to help and demonstrates the power of having a network to connect those in need, even when outside my circle of contacts!

Another obstacle- having legal knowledge in a certain area of law, but being unaware and uncertain of the jurisdictional differences. As we all know, many areas of law have overlapping similarities between states and jurisdictions. But there are also many differences. We all know that there are differences, but we do not always know what those differences are. As a result, I am often inhibited in providing proper legal information to the TAPS clients because the clients’ area is a jurisdiction in which I am unfamiliar. Fortunately, JMF provides the opportunity to connect these clients with attorneys in the right jurisdiction with the know-how to help.

What area of law do I come across the most? Estate law. There have been several other areas of law where clients need assistance; however, estate law has been the issue that, for me, has come up most often. Many clients I receive need to update, modify or create estate documents.

The moment of happiness comes when a MSJDN member is able to put me, and consequently the TAPS client, in touch with a professional contact in the required geographical location and the required area of law. It’s not that these instances are rare, it’s that it takes longer than I would expect. It takes weeks, sometimes months, to properly place a client. Financial resources are also an issue. Most TAPS clients are financially restricted to pay for legal services. Therefore, it’s a great moment when I can find a legal resource who can provide legal services at no or low cost.

Have there been cases/clients I cannot place? Definitely. It is frustrating, but it is also inevitable. Nevertheless, JMF continues to try. The saying- it’s not what you know, but who you know- definitely rings true in this situation. This work is a constant reminder of how big this country and by extension, the military community, really is.

At the end of the day, this work matters. Even though I do not know these people on a personal level, I can relate to them. These are military dependents and survivors. I have learned so much about the military community through my relationship with my husband. It really is a world of its own. It does not always make sense to those on the outside looking in. For those of us who do live in the community, it still does not always make sense. However, we continue to try and that’s what matters.

Are you an attorney looking to give back to Gold Star families? Email to learn more about current cases and how you can help!