Bringing nearly two decades of military and government service to his law school experience, Patrick George ’24 continues to be driven by a sense of duty. Now, he’s focused on using his legal education to help veterans. George, who spent fourteen years in active duty in the Air Force and a decade in the Intelligence community, saw many of his colleagues struggle in the transition between military and civilian life, unaware of supportive benefits available to them, or unable to access benefits because of the circumstances of their discharge.
“My close friend bled blue—he loved the Air Force and would have served for decades, but he was discharged in part due to sexual orientation and it devastated him,” says George. Like many veterans who don’t have the term “honorable” attached to their discharge, George’s friend felt stigmatized and isolated, denied benefits designed to help veterans transition successfully to civilian life.
That’s why George, along with other members of the Cornell Law Veterans Association, teamed up with Michaela K. Rossettie Azemi, Cornell Law School’s director of Pro Bono Services & Externships, to design and launch a Veterans Law Practicum in the fall of 2023. The practicum will enroll ten upper-class law students each semester who will practice under the supervision of two adjunct professors, both licensed attorneys with a background in disability claims and veterans benefits.
The Veterans Law Practicum will also serve as a hub for eligible veterans seeking legal information, advice, and representation. “There is a wide gap in legal services available for veterans,” says Rossettie Azemi. “If they are receiving benefits of some kind, they are often over the income limit for free legal aid, but still can’t afford an attorney. Additionally, there aren’t many private-practice attorneys or firms in Ithaca that have the capacity to take on voluminous pro bono work. This practicum—and the chance to connect law school students with solo practitioners who want to help—will narrow the gap and make a real difference.”
The Veterans Law Practicum will include a seminar on administrative veterans claims, prioritizing service-related disability claims, benefits appeals, and discharge characterization upgrades. The program will receive referrals and support from local partners, LawNY (Legal Assistance of Western New York), and the Tompkins County Department of Veterans Services. There are more than four thousand veterans residing in Tompkins County.
“This is a really specialized area of law and these kinds of cases can take a long time to resolve, which is why the new practicum is going to be of tremendous value,” says Danielle Bernard, a practicing attorney with LawNY and one of the instructors for the practicum. Herself an Air Force veteran, Bernard has seen too many veterans denied the benefits they deserve. “Part of the military culture is that you work through the pain until you just can’t work through it anymore,” she says. “There are people out there who want to help but there’s simply not enough legal representation available. The practicum can start to change that in the short term and the long term by producing more lawyers educated in this area. We can help people who may not even be aware of the benefits available to them.”
Before COVID-19, LawNY specifically funded a Veterans Legal Corps fellow in partnership with Equal Justice Works to handle intake, outreach, and representation of veterans in civil issues. Equal Justice Works no longer funds this fellowship and there are no resources to fill the void. Tompkins County Veterans Services Center has also reported frequent difficulty connecting veterans to legal information, advice, and representation for their civil legal needs. Veterans often are caught just above 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which is a requirement for case acceptance at LawNY, but don’t have enough resources to afford to hire a private attorney. The Veterans Law Practicum would aid in narrowing this gap and at the same time, developing a long-term pipeline of lawyers trained and willing to serve veterans in their practice, whether as legal aid attorneys or through pro bono legal work in private practice.
“Being of service to other people is a profound experience,” says Jimmy Hardwick, a disability attorney who spent many years in private practice and legal aid in California, and who now works with Bernard at LawNY and will co-teach the practicum. “To me, education is a privilege, especially legal education, and it is our responsibility to use that privilege in the service of others. We are a service industry—something people can lose sight of. Our students will get a taste of what it feels like to put their legal skills into practice, working with clients in a trauma-informed, anti-racist, and critical form of advocacy. And those skills will be transferrable to any area of the law, from intake to resolution. These are practical skills they can take with them wherever they go.”
“The practicum is where these students will get to experience the lawyering part,” says Bernard. “They will come up with the arguments and ideas and creative ways to use the law to help clients in the VA world.” Hardwick adds: “They will identify the issues and barriers that are preventing people from living their best lives.” For example, a discharge upgrade might be necessary for a veteran to receive medical benefits or housing assistance.
According to one Department of Veterans Affairs study, veterans with other-than-honorable discharges are seven times more likely to experience homelessness than their honorably discharged peers. Similarly, both income and disability are significant risk factors for homelessness—that’s why it’s so important for veterans to get the disability and other benefits to which they are entitled.
There’s a natural linkage between the advocacy services of the Veterans Law Practicum and those successfully delivered by Cornell Law School’s Tenants Advocacy Practicum, which has served more than 800 low-income tenants in Tompkins County in the last two years. In that practicum, law students work on a variety of housing issues including lease violations, lockouts, and evictions and they assist and advocate on behalf of tenants who might be facing eviction and homelessness.
“I have such a great respect for people who choose to serve. I am grateful to continue working within this space and hope to help bring about positive change for the military community throughout my career.”LogaN KENNEY ’21
“We’ve demonstrated how excellence in legal education paired with community engagement, can have a monumental impact,” says Rossettie Azemi, who teamed up with the Cornell Law Veterans Association several years ago when the idea for the veterans practicum was being shaped. Logan Kenney ’21 was the Veterans Association secretary at the time the seed was planted and the blueprint developed for presentation to leadership. Kenney went on to represent clients who had suffered sexual trauma while serving in the military through Cornell’s Gender Justice Clinic. Today, Kenney works for Willkie Farr & Gallagher and has been able to further develop her interest in veteran-based representation.
“I have such a great respect for people who choose to serve. I am grateful to continue working within this space and hope to help bring about positive change for the military community throughout my career,” says Kenney, who represents hundreds of veterans and Gold Star families in mass torts against Iran and maintains a veteran-focused pro-bono practice.
That’s the same spirit that drives today’s Cornell Law students who are also veterans. “I am so proud of what they were able to accomplish in getting funding and support for the new practicum,” says Kenney. Since Kenney graduated, the Law School has enrolled more veterans who are now essentially a “critical mass” of advocates.
Patrick George’s Law School Class of 2024 includes five veterans. “We feel like we have both the responsibility and the momentum,” says George, who is the copresident of the Veterans Association. “We have to go about designing this practicum in just the right way and getting it funded. We need to set it up for success and sustainability.”
George and his fellow veterans/law students are working with admissions to improve the yield rate of veterans who choose Cornell after admission. They send each admitted veteran a “challenge coin” which is normally presented by unit commanders in recognition of a special achievement by a member of the unit. “We want them to understand they are a deeply valued population,” says Monica Ingram, associate dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. “They bring to the Law School a level of maturity by virtue of their experience, whether it’s ROTC or active-duty service.”
Ingram says there is no longer a cap on the number of veterans who can receive scholarships and she anticipates that the growing number of veterans among Cornell’s undergraduates will mean more of them headed to law school there. The University has a proud history of producing military officers since its founding in 1865 and during World War II, the campus turned partly into a military camp for the Army and Navy. Cornell is the only Ivy League school to retain all three services in Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC programs.
“We have a community here that is receptive and appreciative,” says Ingram, who describes herself as “an army brat” whose appreciation for military service is generational. “Members of the military serve at the behest of their country without having any choice in where they go or under whom they serve. That creates a special individual and a level of sacrifice that we must respect and honor. We have an infrastructure here that’s built to support them and now the practicum will provide an even greater level of support.”
“We want to see this practicum and its impact get as big as it can be,” says Josh Roth, a U.S. Army veteran, former federal agent, and currently a second year Cornell Law student who is also vice president of Veterans Association. “The fact is that I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing right now without veterans benefits. I’m here on the GI bill. My disability benefits help support my family. I can devote all my mental and physical energy to my law school studies because of the benefits I’ve received.”
Roth believes that the practicum can help “right some wrongs” by ensuring that veterans in the community have access to the benefits they’re entitled to. “People get separated from the military for a lot of reasons. It could be a positive drug test because the person had a small amount of CBD, but there’s a zero tolerance policy and they’re kicked out. Sometimes, it’s a failure to adapt because of some behavioral issue that’s the result of a traumatic life event endured during service. Many are denied benefits and their life slowly erodes.” He recalls the case of a woman who endured a sexual assault while she was a reservist but didn’t want to file a criminal complaint. After separating from the military, she was unaware of counseling services available to her as a veteran until Roth helped her.
“There is a great momentum in this nation to narrow or otherwise bridge the ‘military/civilian divide’ and the practicum can help do that”PATRICK GEORGE ’24
“The veteran community is a reluctant sort,” says Roth. “There’s a stigma against admitting to a disability, going to the doctor or asking for help.” That’s why Roth hopes to see more veterans in the Law School, and more law students who understand the pressures on veterans. “The average law student can decipher the law, but actually connecting with the clientele and being able to speak their language helps them to understand how the law can help them. You don’t have to be a veteran to support veterans and be involved in this work. The fact is that six out of ten people in this country have some direct connection to the military, which really broadens the impact of a practicum like this.”
“There is a great momentum in this nation to narrow or otherwise bridge the ‘military/civilian divide’ and the practicum can help do that,” says George. “We can and should give new meaning to the phrase ‘Thank you for your service’ by ensuring that those who serve their country receive the services that
recognize their contributions and restore their humanity, their honor, and their dignity.”