Shakuwra Shaw’s path to law school includes eight years as a paralegal in her native St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.
But the third-year Florida Coastal School of Law student said she’s never been more enlightened about her prospective career as on a recent Friday morning. That’s when she began helping veterans with legal challenges ranging from child custody to disability benefits disputes.
“It was a wonderful experience because it was my first time, really, to give back to veterans,” she said. “It actually opened my eyes to the community of Jacksonville and has really gotten me thinking about more what’s ahead.”
Shaw, 32, is among the Florida Coastal students participating in the school-led Veterans Legal Collaborative, a multiagency initiative that serves as a gateway for veterans in need of civil legal assistance.
Every other Friday from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., the collaborative’s representatives set up shop at Jacksonville’s Veterans Health Administration outpatient clinic on Jefferson Street.
Florida Coastal students, faculty and local volunteer attorneys conduct one-on-one intake interviews with veterans with the aim of helping them directly or steering them to someone who can help resolve their issues.
The law school’s services are free. Many of the people served are homeless.
“The design of the program is that instead of the veteran going to a lot of different places to get their answers, there’s a centralized place to go to have their needs met,” said Sarah Sullivan, Florida Coastal’s Disability and Public Benefits Clinic director. “And it’s an opportunity for us as attorneys and law students to give back to those who have served us.”
Shaw says she’s particularly enthusiastic about the collaborative because her uncle was a U.S. Navy veteran who motivated her to pursue her interest in a legal career.
“We basically try to find out what they need help with and what they have done so far in the process. From there, we try to give them a helping hand — and they are so appreciative,” she said.
Particularly during their transition from military service, veterans are much more likely than the rest of the population to confront testy family, financial or medical matters, said third-year Florida Coastal student Priscilla Justiniano.
Justiniano, 53, knows first-hand of military veterans’ challenges; she served in the U.S. Navy for 30 years.
“They lose that support system once they leave the military and we’re able to help steer them in the right direction,” Justiniano said.
As word has spread about the collaborative, more veterans have taken part; about 15 sought assistance at the most recent session.
Sullivan says many veterans served by the collaborative are referred to Florida Coastal’s seven in-house legal clinics, which range from disability and benefits law to family law.
Other times, they are steered to Jacksonville Area Legal Aid’s Northeast Florida Medical Legal Partnership, Three Rivers Legal Services, the Veterans Health Administration, 4th Judicial Circuit Veterans Treatment Court or the Wounded Warrior Project – all of which are partners in the collaborative.
“We work as a team to try to best serve these veterans,” said Rebecca Feyerick, a Northeast Florida Medical Legal Partnership staff attorney. “I think that instead of working in a vacuum, we now know through the collaborative where to send people and we have the contacts and the process is place to best serve them.”
The endeavor particularly benefits from being located in a setting familiar to veterans. Wendy Snee, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs veterans justice outreach specialist, says she’s receiving rave reviews from clients about the law students’ advocacy work.
“We’ve had veterans says that they never realized that there is paperwork they could submit to lower their payments or the amount they owe for something,” she said. “The students have become like case managers and they have become like bulldogs, as they go through the many aspects of doing what they can to help the veterans.”
Florida Coastal officials say the school’s clinics provided more than 39,000 pro bono hours in 2014.
Attorneys interested in assisting with the Veterans Legal Collaborative may contact Sullivan at [email protected] or (904) 680-7782.