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William & Mary Law School’s veterans benefits clinic remains flexible to serve clients

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    Serving clients online:  The Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic offers William & Mary law students the opportunity to assist veterans with filing claims for disability compensation with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty and staff are operating remotely to help clients and teach students.  Photo by David F. Morrill
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For the faculty and staff of the Lewis B. Puller, Jr., Veterans Benefits Clinic, it was all hands on deck when William & Mary Law School closed its building during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Only this time the deck was in different locations—at professors’ home offices or living rooms, in students’ apartments, in their parents’ homes, and anywhere else work could be done away from the clinic offices in the Law School.

As Caleb Stone put it, “welcome to the new normal.”

“We had to scramble during spring break,” said Stone, Professor of the Practice at the Veterans Benefits Clinic. “For the period before our next clinic class, we needed to figure out how we would operate remotely from a clinic operations standpoint and how we would perform our class obligations; thanks to Zoom, we’ve been very fortunate to do this without any technological encumbrances.”

Their locations may differ, but the faculty and students of the Puller Veterans Benefits Clinic are ready to serve.Stone explained that the clinic was already nearly paperless thanks to years-long use of the Clio legal file management system, which allows faculty and students to work with and share PDFs and documents in a secure manner. Stone himself has been visiting the office twice a week to check and process mail, scan letters, and fax documents to the Department of Veterans Affairs as needed.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s not nearly as bad as it would have been 10 years ago with differences in technology,” Stone said. “Our students have been incredibly resilient about the entire thing; I can’t say enough about their efforts in the face of something that’s really disturbed their routine.”

Working with the clinic, Christina Kapalko J.D. ’20 considers the clinic experience to be different from doctrinal and lecture-based courses. The Puller Clinic in particular has an extensive learning curve compared to other clinics. She said that learning about the VA system, the medical jargon, and how the law is woven into claims for disability is a lot to assimilate in such a short time.

“This is hands-on work that requires organization, communication, and a willingness to make true change for clients in the community,” Kapalko said. “It’s so much more than listening to a lecture and studying for an exam.”

Kapalko praised faculty for being willing and able to assist students as much as possible to smoothly switch to long-distance clinic work.

“They care about our well-being as more than student advocates, but also as people, and that’s the kind of psychological and emotional support that keeps my fellow students and I engaged and able to work for our clients to the best of our abilities,” Kapalko said.

Kapalko also praises her fellow clinic students, all of whom have proven to be an incredible support system.

“Because clinic is so different, only fellow clinic students really understand the extensive amount of effort required to work for our clients,” Kapalko said. “As such, they are always willing to give advice about ways to address certain problems we may be having, advice about working with the VA, or simply to lend a listening ear when stressed about more difficult scenarios.”

Two weeks into working from home, Gabby Vance J.D. ’21 was impressed with the clinic's transition from the office and classroom to online.

“Like any law school class, there is a learning curve for all of us at the clinic to move to remote work,” Vance said. “I think we are fortunate as part of the Veterans Clinic that we can do much of the work electronically without problem—and we usually meet with clients over the phone anyway.”

Vance says the hardest transition for her was not working with clients online, but rather missing the tight-knit community in her class.

“Professors [Michael] Dick [Visiting Professor of the Practice] and Stone have been the best professors, though, through this transition and time of uncertainty,” Vance said. “They are so good about checking in and reaching out to us to make sure we can get everything done remotely and are okay.”

Vance hopes to work at a law firm after graduation, and thinks this experience is proving beneficial in learning how to work remotely and successfully. She realizes that at law firms or even government agencies, she will not always be in the office contacting clients.

For Stone the biggest initial challenges consisted of uncertainty and remoteness. No one knew how things were going to operate, or how long students would be out. (Originally, the idea was for classes to resume on April 2, but that soon lengthened to the Law School extending distance learning for the rest of the semester.)

Questions were numerous. Would VA decisions continue to be delivered? How long is the time frame? Will people stay healthy around here?

“None of us were able to plan two to three weeks in advance,” Stone said. “So we’ve had to be flexible to roll with the punches.”

In terms of clinic work, Kelsey Reichardt J.D. ’20 thinks technology has made it slightly more challenging to interact with clients due to the difficulty in calling them without access to the Clinic phone line and voicemail system, though it hasn't significantly hampered her efforts.

“Thankfully, a lot of our items are online or can be accessed easily via the internet so we are still able to submit the necessary documents and paperwork back and forth with the VA and our clients,” Reichardt said. “Professor Stone has done a fantastic job of continuing to support all the students and answer questions/concerns that we may have.”

For Kapalko, some stress simply results from students worrying about those who benefit from their work.

“Each student in this clinic works hard to advocate to the best of their ability for their clients,” Kapalko said. “We have each spent nearly 100 hours this semester working with these veterans, and we care about them as people, not just clients. As such, there is the added stress worrying about their welfare and well-being at a time where they may be particularly at risk should they catch COVID-19.” 

Stone admits that a lot can get lost in technology when everyone is in a different physical space. He says that classes have been more difficult, but there have been some opportunities to use tech in ways that make classes more interesting. Both Professors Stone and Dick have put in place a good mix of lectures and classes with more class participation.

The Clinic has even brought in a guest speaker or two. One day, Steven Combs, the Chief Deputy Commissioner for the Virginia Department of Veteran Services (VDVS), spoke to students remotely from his office in Richmond. Combs talked about how VDVS is dealing with the coronavirus and how all the veterans care centers and cemeteries and veterans benefits offices across the state continue to operate.

Another speaker, Bradley W. Hennings, a managing attorney at Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick, whose practice focuses on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, would ordinarily have traveled to the clinic from his office in Providence, Rhode Island, but now he presents on Zoom.

“We’ve been pretty happy the way classes have gone,” Stone said. “It’s tough to bring the energy into the laptop for 75 minutes at a time, but overall faculty and students are doing great under the circumstance.”

Kapalko believes that each law student should take the opportunity to conduct experiential learning while at school.

“I did not feel ready to enter the legal profession until I took this course, and thanks to the Puller Clinic I now feel capable to tackle the challenges that come with being a first-year attorney,” Kapalko said. “I cannot say enough that despite the challenges we’ve had to face switching to virtual clinic work, our professors and classmates have made the experience as painless as possible.”