Letter From The President Of The Houston Bar Association

2010-07-05 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

Serving Those Who Served

Harris County, Texas, the seat of the Houston Metropolitan Area, has the second largest concentration of veterans in the nation. Our Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center serves more than 350,000 veterans each year. It is estimated that at any given time, there are more than 4,000 homeless veterans in our county. Men and women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq increase the challenge to our medical and social facilities, and many have health, disability and legal issues unique to these current conflicts.

While we may face issues on a larger scale because of our four-million-plus population, veterans in virtually every county in our nation, whether urban or rural, struggle with the same problems. As lawyers, we are uniquely skilled at offering help in one crucial area - legal services. Veterans need help with family law matters, with consumer problems, with wills and probate. They also struggle with more service-specific legal issues, like disability and veterans' benefits.

In the summer of 2008, the Houston Bar Association established a legal initiative to provide advice, counsel and pro bono representation to veterans in our area. We enlisted the support of city and county officials, as well as the agencies that serve veterans. Our program has a multi-faceted approach with the following components:

• weekly legal clinics at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center that provide advice, counsel and intake for pro bono legal services for veterans and the spouses of deceased veterans;

• regularly scheduled legal clinics and speakers on legal topics at two residential facilities for veterans;

• two Saturday clinics each year at American Legion or VFW posts;

• legal advice and intake booths at stand-downs and other gatherings of veterans;

• training for attorney volunteers on handling veterans issues;

• development of resource cards and directories; and

• providing non-legal services, such as stocking libraries, providing clothing for job interviews and helping with holiday events at residential facilities for veterans.

We work through our Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program to maximize resources such as insurance coverage for volunteers, training programs, and expertise in specialized legal areas. Through our Houston Bar Foundation, we hired a staff attorney to work with the Veterans Administration, the VA hospital system, and other related agencies and organizations to ensure that we are following guidelines and meeting veterans' needs. And we have tapped into a dedicated group of volunteers who have found their calling - more than 200 attorneys provide services through Veterans' Legal Initiative. As a non-litigator whose practice at Vinson & Elkins centers on business and corporate law, I am pleased to see that many corporate legal departments are providing pro bono legal services to veterans through this program. To date, the Houston Bar Association's Veterans Legal Initiative has served over 2,700 veterans.

Using the Houston Bar Association's program as a model, State Bar of Texas President Terry Tottenham is establishing a statewide legal initiative for veterans called Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans. The Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso bar associations have new veterans' initiatives in the works. Smaller venues like Fort Worth, Jefferson County, Galveston and Waco are developing programs. Each bar association will tailor its initiative to the needs of its resident veterans, its resources and its volunteer pool. The state bar will back them up with additional resources, training and many other types of assistance.

Travis Sales, a Baker Botts attorney who established the Veterans Legal Initiative during his administration as president of the Houston Bar Association, summed up the mission behind the program: "Our veterans have sacrificed to preserve our freedoms and the rule of law. We as lawyers should ensure that the protectors of our justice system have full access to it." We are the only ones who can do that, and we should provide this access for veterans throughout our nation. If you are interested in finding out more about the Houston Bar Association's Veterans Legal Initiative, please contact us through our Web site, www.hba.org.

Yours truly,

T. Mark Kelly