Wisconsin Lawyer: For the Good: Navy veteran John McMullen counsels homeless veterans in partnership with Legal Action of Wisconsin:

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    For the Good: Navy veteran John McMullen counsels homeless veterans in partnership with Legal Action of Wisconsin

    It was serendipity when John McMullen, a former U.S. Navy JAG Corps lawyer, called Mary Lansing of the La Crosse office of Legal Action of Wisconsin (LAW), wanting to become involved with LAW as a volunteer lawyer.

    Alyson K. Zierdt

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 81, No. 5, May 2008

    For the Good: Navy veteran John McMullen counsels homeless veterans in partnership with Legal Action of Wisconsin

    by Alyson K. Zierdt

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    It was serendipity when John McMullen, a former U.S. Navy JAG Corps lawyer, called Mary Lansing of the La Crosse office of Legal Action of Wisconsin (LAW), wanting to become involved with LAW as a volunteer lawyer.

    John McMullen

    John had recently moved to Wisconsin because his wife, a family physician, accepted a position in Tomah. The move gave John the opportunity to follow his dream of running an organic produce farm, but he still wanted to maintain his connection with the legal profession. He passed the Wisconsin bar exam and contacted LAW to explore volunteer opportunities.

    Mary thought that John's Tomah location and military background would mesh well with an idea she had. She wanted LAW to do something to help military veterans living on the grounds of the VA Hospital in Tomah at a facility owned and operated by the Veterans Assistance Foundation (VAF), a nonprofit corporation that operates transitional housing programs for military veterans who are homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless.

    Mary contacted the VAF-Tomah and learned that its resident veterans needed the opportunity to consult with lawyers about issues such as obtaining disability benefits and dealing with child support obligations. She then conceived the idea of holding a regularly scheduled free legal clinic on-site at the VAF facility and decided that the clinic would be the ideal project in which to involve John.

    John agreed, and the legal clinic opened in November 2006. The VAF provides the space for the clinic and posts sign-up sheets on which veterans can schedule their appointments. The clinic was held monthly for its first year but now runs in alternate months. At least a dozen veterans have signed up for each clinic.

    Since the clinic's inception, Mary and John have staffed it in a process they describe as "legal triage." In each initial meeting with a veteran, they listen to everything a veteran has to say, sort the legal from the nonlegal issues, and determine what can be done to address both kinds of issues.

    Typically, each veteran has a combination of problems that can include physical disability, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other kinds of mental illness, joblessness, depression, and substance abuse. Many veterans have lost family support and burned bridges in their lives. Most are from the Vietnam War era, although Mary recently saw a client in his 20s, an Iraq War combat veteran, who has been given a 100 percent disability rating due to PTSD.

    Some issues can be addressed on the spot, such as letting a veteran facing a criminal charge know that he is eligible for a public defender. More, however, require some follow up. In civil matters, if the veteran qualifies to receive legal services from LAW, Mary and LAW will undertake the further representation. In criminal matters, John has defended veterans from the clinic, on a pro bono basis.

    Mary and John point out that not all of the problems the veterans bring to the clinic are legal, but that the veterans are in such difficult straits that they don't know where to start to find answers to questions like what amount of child support they owe or how to apply for certain benefits. The problems of the veterans who use the legal clinic, John says, "are so much more compelling than I had anticipated."

    Although finding the answers to the veterans' nonlegal questions can be tedious, John feels that his training as a lawyer prepared him to improvise when necessary to find those answers, and in that way, to be an advocate for the veterans. He estimates that, between the clinic hours and following up with the veterans as needed, he spends roughly five to 10 hours per month on matters related to the clinic. In addition to volunteering at the clinic, John grows organic produce on his 60-acre farm and maintains a part-time legal practice with the Sparta firm of Gleiss Locante & Associates.

    Deborah Johnson, executive director of VAF-Tomah, says that the legal clinic has been a positive service for the veterans, and that Mary's and John's work in the clinic has helped the veterans navigate through the legal system and gain a new perspective of lawyers as people who can help rather than as people to be feared.

    Mary's and John's work at the legal clinic is the subject of a 30-second commercial as part of the State Bar of Wisconsin Branding the Profession effort. The ad is part of a statewide rotation that included a series of commercials shown in the La Crosse and Eau Claire region in the fall of 2007 and currently is showing in the Milwaukee area. The "Wisconsin Lawyers Make a Difference" TV series highlights lawyers who demonstrate exemplary commitment to community or pro bono service. The branding effort reinforces the things the public values most about Wisconsin lawyers: expert advice, problem-solving skills, and community service. To view the TV spots produced as part of the series, visit www.wisbar.org/branding.

    Alyson K. Zierdt, Marquette 1981, is a member of the Wisconsin Lawyer editorial advisory board. She is of counsel with Davis & Kuelthau S.C., Oshkosh.



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