Bar News - February 18, 2015
Legal Boots on the Ground to Serve Veterans’ Legal Needs
By: Kristen Senz
David Kolesar’s phone has hardly stopped ringing since he began his new job as staff attorney for Legal Boots on the Ground, a legal clinic for veterans and active duty soldiers.
Photo by Kristen Senz
When David Kolesar opened his office in early January, about 30 prospective clients called him on the first day. Since then, the pace has only quickened.
Ordinarily, this might signal a successful startup practice, but Kolesar is fresh out of law school, has no support staff, and most of his clients can’t afford representation. Fortunately for him and for soldiers and military veterans across New Hampshire, the Veterans Law Project – also called Legal Boots on the Ground – is far from a regular law practice, and Kolesar welcomes a challenge.
Conceived by Larry Vogelman when he was president of the NH Bar Association two years ago, Legal Boots on the Ground is a project of the NH Veterans Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the New Hampshire Chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars. The program, which is funded by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, aims to match active duty soldiers and veterans who need legal services with lawyers who are willing to provide them. The program also provides some direct representation on both civil and criminal matters.
“The need is out there,” says Vogelman, who serves as legal director for the project, “and the people who want to help are out there.”
Kolesar, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, spent 18 years on active duty in the US Air Force, traveling the world on regular deployments with his aircraft maintenance squadron and rising through the ranks. As section chief, he went before his commander on behalf of younger airmen who’d gotten themselves into trouble, and he found that the role suited him.
After retiring from the Air Force as a master sergeant in August 2011, “I wanted to get a legal degree and find a way to use it to help people on active duty and veterans who are trying to transition back into civilian life,” Kolesar says.
Less than a year after graduating from UNH Law and being admitted to the New Hampshire Bar, Kolesar is working out of an office in the basement of the Nixon Vogelman firm in Manchester, doing exactly what he wanted to do. “I’m humbled and honored by the opportunity to do this,” says Kolesar, the lone employee and staff attorney at Legal Boots on the Ground, “and to have this opportunity so early in my career as a lawyer.”
But Kolesar did more than just envision this work. Through an Equal Justice Works Fellowship, he spent time during his third year of law school researching and writing a grant proposal that he hoped would enable him to start a nearly identical program. And although he was unable to find direct financial support for his dream, he found something even better: Larry Vogelman.
The two met through a professor at the law school and arranged to play on a team together at the NH Bar Association’s Quid Pro Bono Golf Tournament in 2013. Afterwards they kept in touch while the pieces came together over the ensuing year and a half, culminating with the official launch of the program on Jan. 5.
The types of cases run the gamut, from family law and criminal to military discharge upgrades, landlord-tenant and Social Security benefits. “Right now, we’re not doing VA benefits appeals,” adds Vogelman.
Some of the veterans’ cases are being referred through the NH Bar Association Pro Bono Referral Program, while others, including all criminal cases, are referred to a special panel of attorneys who have volunteered to take veterans’ cases. For veterans with a limited ability to pay for representation, cases are referred through the bar association’s reduced-fee program.
“This definitely improves access to legal services for low-income veterans in New Hampshire, and that aligns with our mission at Pro Bono,” says Ginny Martin, director of legal services at the NH Bar Association.
Pro Bono has received more than a dozen veterans’ case referrals, including child support modifications, consumer issues and the program’s first-ever collaborative family law case, Martin said. Pro Bono staffer Janice Rabchenuk coordinates these referrals with Legal Boots on the Ground and finds the partnership is working well, given the nature of the issues referred and Kolesar’s willingness to stabilize veterans’ legal situations when needed, to give Pro Bono time to locate volunteers.
Kolesar handles some of the cases himself, and for the rest, he acts as a liaison, connecting each veteran with a lawyer and helping to keep communication clear. “I feel like I’m in a unique position to be able to translate between the two,” he says.
Eventually, Kolesar hopes to set up a peer advocate aspect of the program, in which non-lawyer veteran volunteers would accompany other veterans to court for moral support, “like CASA for veterans,” he says. “My goal is to never have a vet go into court unrepresented, regardless of the issue.”
After building a robust referral network, he also hopes to provide additional training to the court about post-traumatic stress disorder and the services available to vets through the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
So far, the program is operating in “controlled chaos,” Kolesar says, and the phone keeps ringing. “It’s going well. If there was any question before about whether there’s a need for this, it’s gone in my mind.”
Vogelman says he hopes other states will look to Legal Boots on the Ground as a model for similar initiatives. “There’s no reason why every bar across the country can’t put together something like this,” he says.
Legal Boots on the Ground is setting up an advisory board. For more information about the program, visit www.vfnh.org.
If you would like to volunteer to represent veterans through the Pro Bono Program, contact either Margaret Gilsenberg or Janice Rabchenuk.