Puller Veterans Benefits Clinic

Yakubisinby Chris Yakubisin, Class of 2016

Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, Chris graduated from Duquesne University with a B.A. in journalism. He is currently a staff member of the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal and works as a Graduate Research Fellow at the Law School.

During my first week of law school classes, my criminal law professor cautioned the class not to forget that the people we read about in our casebooks are real people. It is important to remember this for many reasons, but I feel that my professor’s comment was meant to serve as a reminder that an attorney must do more than know the law.

Indeed an attorney’s responsibilities are many and each contributes in some way to the inevitable moments of panic that all law students face. While the most obvious and well-known contributor to these “panics” is knowledge of the law (certainly everyone has some anxiety before exams), perhaps the lesser known responsibilities are the most important. Attorneys must have empathy for their clients, be reliable and organized, and be an effective communicator and advocate. In order to make it through law school, all law students will learn to be organized, they will learn to write, and they will learn at least some kind of responsibility.

However, it is possible to go through law school with very little interaction with clients, or little time keeping experience. To put it another way, opportunities to develop your practical skills may not be easy to come by in a casebook. This is not what I was thinking of when I the enrolled in the Puller Veterans Benefits Clinic, though. I knew the Clinic was the first such program to be certified by the Department of Veteran’s affairs, and I knew I would have the opportunity to work with veterans, but I didn’t know that I would have the chance to develop such a wide variety of legal skills by participating in the program.

Students in the Clinic were grouped into teams of two, and each team was responsible for six clients. Since each client is unique, every student experienced the Clinic’s work in a unique way; however, certain things were the same for all of the teams. For example, each team had to communicate with their clients regularly, gather and organize records, account for their time spent doing work for clients, and interview a new client.

The basic things like keeping time helped develop practical skills throughout the semester, and it wasn’t always easy to account for time, but doing these necessary and perhaps tedious tasks were worth it to be able to participate in such a rewarding program.

Sometimes while doing hours of reading about federal income tax, or civil procedure, one can forget about why they want a law degree, or how a lawyer can help people. Being able to spend a few hours each week working for real people, really helping them, was extremely rewarding. Being able to do real legal work, rather than simply read about it was something I looked forward to doing outside of class. Rather than having to wait until the end of the semester to get a grade and see how much you learned, the clinic offered many successes throughout the semester.

While the claims process for veteran’s benefits claims is slow and complicated, small victories were possible throughout the semester. Thinking about them now, it seems silly that things like adding a dependent to a claim, or retrieving records form the VA are “victories,” but in the world of veteran’s benefits, even a menial administrative task can be difficult to accomplish. Often veterans are told that such things can take up to nine months, so, when you get it done in a couple weeks, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.

Looking back now, though, I don’t think about the innumerable phone calls, e-mails, and letters involved in the process. Rather, I think about the people I’ve helped and the impact working with the clinic has had on my life, and now, when I find myself dwelling in a moment of panic I can take some comfort in knowing that I’m already well on my way to being a practicing attorney, I’ve already got some experience helping people.

This blog post is part of a series featuring student experiences in William & Mary Law School’s nine clinics. To view more clinic posts, click here.