Mustering Up for VetLex: Jones Day and the ABA join forces to meet the wide-ranging legal needs of 21 million U.S. veterans

Wednesday, December 7, 2016 - 12:11

Introduction: On November 11 – Veterans Day – inside and outside counsel alike gathered across all 18 of Jones Day’s U.S. offices to talk about VetLex, a joint effort of the firm and the American Bar Association (ABA) designed to pull together the resources needed to address the sundry legal needs of U.S. military veterans. Here, Jones Day partner Laura Ellsworth discusses the ambitious pro bono partnership, including how in-house counsel can contribute. Her remarks have been edited for length and style.

MCC: Tell us about your background and your role at Jones Day as Partner-in-Charge of Global Community Service Initiatives.

Ellsworth: I moved to Pittsburgh in 1980, right when its economy hit rock bottom after the collapse of the steel industry. In the years since, I’ve watched my city go from flat on its back to one of the most vibrant, livable cities in America. A critical driver of that rebirth was the commitment by the business leaders from every sector who came together and made it their business to work together to transform their communities. Jones Day, the largest international law firm in the city, was obviously one of those business leaders, and our lawyers worked pro bono on just about everything, including economic and workforce development, education, healthcare, the arts, and rule of law.

A few years ago, our managing partner, Steve Brogan, came to Pittsburgh to meet with a number of our community partners and was struck by the extent to which Jones Day lawyers were involved in every facet of community life here – almost always in a creative leadership role. It reminded him a lot of our firm’s roots in Cleveland, where the same has been true, and he wanted to be intentional about carrying that history forward throughout a firm that is now in 44 offices on five continents. We have long had a very active pro bono program, but this community-impact work was sufficiently distinct that he decided to create a whole new position to spearhead it. His direction was straightforward: “I want you to go into the communities where we are around the world, identify problems that need to be solved, and go out and solve them. Don’t just talk about them; figure out a way to marshal the resources of the firm, the community leaders, the clients that we know, roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, work the problem, and deliver actual solutions that make a difference in our communities.”

At the time of that conversation, I had been at Jones Day almost 25 years, and for 12 of those had been Partner-in-Charge (PIC) of the Pittsburgh office, which made me the longest-serving PIC in all of Jones Day. Because of that, I had worked closely with literally all of the other PICs, as well as a large number of lawyers in different practices across the globe. Those relationships allowed me to understand the issues of other communities and mobilize all sorts of resources to further the mandate I had been given.

MCC: What have you learned about veterans’ unmet needs for legal services? What is the range of services that VetLex will address?

Ellsworth: In looking for areas in which to deploy creative, hands-on solutions, we quickly focused on the legal representation of U.S. military veterans. We felt, as a moral imperative, that people who had fought and died for the rule of law around the world ought to have access to justice here at home. Yet, we repeatedly encountered in our pro bono practice veterans and veteran families who were having difficulty accessing or navigating the legal system. And we all read in the paper every day about the problems veterans encounter when seeking benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Whether it’s dealing with health benefits, starting new businesses, family law issues, employment matters, or landlord-tenant disputes, veterans have the same range of legal needs that most citizens have. But they’re also in a different position for a couple of reasons. Many of them have lived overseas for long periods of time and may not know their communities very well. They also have lived in a very controlled environment, so when they live in a place where they have to take more independent control over their lives, it can be challenging. Many veterans simply don’t like to ask for help. And, like other citizens, some veterans encounter problems like homelessness, criminal issues, or mental health issues that make it more challenging for people to access rule of law.

There are many great organizations out there that provide pro bono or reduced cost (“low bono”) legal services to veterans. But there aren’t enough of them. And they often can’t communicate or coordinate effectively among themselves, and that’s where the idea for VetLex was born.

MCC: I know that both Jones Day and the ABA have a long history of pro bono support for veterans. Can you tell us a little more about that – and how they are working together on VetLex?

Ellsworth: Jones Day has been representing individual veterans on a pro bono basis in most of our offices for years, and we’ve also participated in veteran clinics in various cities. So individual representation of veterans is very familiar to us. The ABA, likewise, has long had committees that focus on veterans, including a specialized effort focused on the VA claims process. ABA President Linda Klein has identified veterans’ issues as one of the signature issues of her presidency, so it’s the perfect time for us to come together and work collaboratively.

For many years, the ABA has convened providers from across the United States who work in the veterans area, and there was consensus among virtually all of them that some mechanism was needed to talk to one another, to collaborate, and to find more lawyers who are willing to help veterans. After hearing this again and again and again, we finally disengaged from the echo chamber, so to speak, and rolled up our sleeves to actually bring into being what everyone was describing in words.

We envisioned what such a system would look like, how it would work, what the rules would be. We worked with Jones Day lawyers who are themselves veterans, led by Miguel Eaton and Devin Winklosky (both of whom served in the U.S. Marine Corps), and we talked with organizational partners across the country that work with veterans. Out of those thousands of hours of design planning came what we call VetLex, a system to link veterans and lawyers across the country. We applied for a grant from the Jones Day Foundation, and we used that funding to develop a prototype for a system that will benefit veterans, veteran-serving organizations, and lawyers seeking to represent veterans. First, it will give veterans a place to go online to find a lawyer who is ready, willing and able to represent them pro bono or low bono on that specific kind of case in that specific jurisdiction. Second, it will help organizations that currently serve veterans do so faster, more efficiently and more effectively. Third, it provides a place for lawyers who want to represent veterans to sign on, specify the kinds of matters they want to take, and be linked to veterans who have that legal need. Alongside all of that is a directory of social services that can be brought to bear. For example, if I have a veteran who has a landlord-tenant issue, and I come to learn that the reason he has that landlord-tenant issue is because he has no job and needs job training, I can go right into the system and see who does job training for veterans in that community and at least have a place I can send him when our case is done, which means I’ve provided more meaningful help to him, beyond just solving his immediate legal problem.

MCC: You just kicked off the first phase of VetLex, which is recruiting a critical mass of lawyers, with Veterans Day meetings with corporate executives and general counsel in all 18 of Jones Day’s U.S. offices. How did that go, and how do you plan to work with in-house lawyers going forward?

Ellsworth: The events were absolutely amazing. I was at the event in New York, and we heard from people like Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who retired as Chief of Naval Operations last year; Chief Judge Dora Irizarry (of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York); Col. Bill Dyer, Deputy Commanding Officer (East) of the U.S. Army Reserve Legal Command; Robert Hugin, the Executive Chairman of Celgene and a former U.S. Marine; retired Navy Lieutenant Commander Brett Morash, now with the Bob Woodruff Foundation; and Congressmen Dan Donoan and Ted Lieu – just amazing people from different walks of life who all have devoted themselves to helping veterans. All of them said what we had heard from others: This is a critical need for our veterans. The lawyers in the audience were incredibly moved and inspired. Many of them were in-house lawyers whose companies already had significant veteran employment initiatives but whose legal team didn’t realize what an important role they could play in that effort. All of a sudden, they saw something they could do in the legal function that’s uniquely helpful to veterans. They were very excited to sign on and get involved.

And this work actually presents a great opportunity for in-house lawyers, even if their company isn’t already involved in veterans’ issues. As you know, there are a lot of in-house counsel who are not members of the bar in the state in which their office is located, so they can’t do conventional pro bono. But with this specialized training, they can be admitted to practice before the administrative bodies that serve veterans. It’s a very unique opportunity for a lot of in-house counsel, and the ability to help veterans who have served our country is an even bigger plus.

MCC: What’s next? I know you’re engaged in training and certification initiatives to help prepare lawyers who want to help veterans.

The next phase is to offer training to those lawyers. Many lawyers who want to provide pro bono representation in their normal area of practice wouldn’t need any specialized training to take a veteran’s case. Other lawyers may choose to take the three to six hours of training needed to handle veteran claims proceedings. We plan to offer that in all of our U.S. offices a couple of times during the year and to make CLE credit available. We also plan to coordinate with the many terrific organizations across the country that already provide this and other kinds of training necessary to work in this area.

MCC: Does this initiative extend beyond Jones Day to lawyers from other law firms, existing pro bono organizations, and other corners of the profession?

Ellsworth: Absolutely. We have 21 million veterans. It’s going to take all of the lawyers that we can bring to bear to provide the legal services they need. We expect the call to go out to other law firms, to in-house legal departments, to law schools, to legal service providers, to bar associations, to spouses of military service veterans who are themselves lawyers, to retired JAG officers, to everyone who believes they can take a case for a veteran. Many of the cases only involve a few hours of time, and we would like to see every lawyer seriously consider taking on some matter for a veteran.

One of the beauties of VetLex is that it allows lawyers to put certain parameters around their involvement. If they only want to do a very simple matter, like a basic will, they can specify that. If they’re willing to take on a more complicated, long-term case, they can specify that. The system is designed to be specific for the veterans, so they can find exactly what they need, and for the lawyers, so they can provide the service they feel comfortable providing.

MCC: Besides training lawyers and matching them with clients, I understand VetLex is planning to provide educational and document management services.

Ellsworth: On the front end, veterans will be able to access basic legal education online. Do I need a will? What is a living will? How do you incorporate? The idea is to get them thinking about whether they even have a legal issue. On the back end of the system, there will be a place where participants can share legal research – a brief bank, for example – and find other resources such as a chat rooms where different providers can discuss substantive cases and strategies. We’re thinking of it as a library of resources that will be available to people working in the veterans space. We want to make it easier and more efficient for them to do what they do.

MCC: When do you expect VetLex to go live for clients?

Ellsworth: We’re hoping for the first quarter of 2017. We are negotiating the final administrative structure now. It is envisioned that VetLex ultimately will reside with the ABA, and they will be working very closely with us on the pilot, which will involve anywhere between five and 20 organizations and locations. In the meantime, we will be collaborating with the ABA and other organizations on attorney recruitment and training. We think that will take about six months. Obviously, the last thing anyone wants to do is open up the system to veterans without having a sufficient number of lawyers trained and ready to go, so that is the first order of business. We’re hoping that by the end of the first quarter of 2017 we’ll be able to go live more broadly to clients.

MCC: How can our readers learn more about the program?

Ellsworth: They can go to VetLex.org. There, they can access basic information about the program and enter their contact information. They will get updates as VetLex evolves, such as when trainings are available in their community. VetLex is not just a tool; it is our hope that VetLex will be a community of lawyers and organizations across the country who, like us, believe that our veterans deserve access to justice in the country to which and for which they have given so much.

Laura Ellsworth is Partner-in-Charge of Global Community Service Initiatives at Jones Day. She can be reached at leellsworth@jonesday.com.