Experience with the Veterans Benefits Clinic

kathleenby Kathleen Zaratzian, Class of 2016

Kathleen Zaratzian is originally from Santa Barbara, California. She earned her B.A. from U.C. Berkeley with majors in English and Environmental Policy.  She is a member of the William & Mary Law Review.  She was a member of the Lewis B. Puller Veterans Benefits Clinic during the Fall 2014 semester.  Next summer she will be interning at the California Attorney General, Department of Natural Resources.

Last fall, I participated in the Lewis B. Puller Veterans’ Benefits Clinic where I assisted veterans with their claims for disability benefits to the Department of Veterans Affairs through various stages of the appeals process.  Most of my clients were injured during their military service, and since leaving the military, they developed medical conditions secondary to their service injury. By law, this justified disability benefits, but they were denied compensation.

I knew going into law school that I wanted the experience of working in a clinic.  I wanted to do this for all of the obvious reasons – it looks great on a resume, teaches you practical legal skills, and is a welcome break from traditional law school classes.  Although I didn’t know much about the Puller Clinic going into it, I had heard nothing but glowing reviews from former students.  After my experience, I am very happy to have had the opportunity and found it to be the most rewarding experience in law school so far.  I recommend, without any reservations, participating in the Puller Clinic.

I have no military experience myself or in my immediate family, although I have many friends and classmates at William & Mary Law School who do.  However, I like helping people.  That’s one of the reasons that I came to law school.  My work was even more rewarding since everything I did during the semester pushed a veteran’s case closer to receiving the amount of disability benefits that he/she is entitled to and helped each veteran navigate a difficult and confusing process.

veterans2During the semester, I oversaw three clients’ cases independently and shared another with a partner.  We worked mostly independently on our cases, but we met weekly with the supervising attorney, Professor Aniela Szymanski, to develop our case strategies and identify legal issues.  Each week during class, a set of partners presented problematic cases to brainstorm and problem solve as a firm.  The substantive work included: interviewing and communicating with clients, writing letters and briefs to the VA,  reviewing and analyzing medical and military personnel records, and researching veterans’ law issues.

What stands out the most about my experience in the Puller Clinic are the relationships that I built with my clients during the semester.  Although a semester is a short period of time, we developed strong relationships by working closely with our clients on very personal issues such as traumatic events, physical and psychological conditions, and financial hardship.  In the face of an incredibly frustrating and drawn-out bureaucratic process, the clients I worked with carried themselves with incredible graciousness and integrity.  I was constantly impressed by their optimism and gratitude for everything I did, even on claims that have been pending for many years.

veteransAnother great experience with the Puller Clinic was an in-reach program held on Veterans’ Day.  Each student in the clinic was assigned two veterans, and we reviewed their documents. Next, a team, composed of an attorney and two students, met with the each veteran for about an hour.  This was a fantastic opportunity to give back to the veterans in our community on Veterans’ Day.

Whether or not you have experience in Veterans Law or an interest in practicing it in the future, the Puller Clinic is a very rewarding experience for anyone who enjoys using their legal training to advocate for people and help them get what they deserve but don’t have the resources to fight for on their own.

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.