Law School Clinic Provides Free Legal Counsel to Members of the Armed Services

Posted: November 4, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Amy Biderman

After being deployed to Iraq, a George Mason School of Law student wrote to law school administration to say his landlord in the United States was threatening to evict his fiancée from their residence. The law school rose to the challenge and secured an alumni’s assistance to resolve the dispute. This and related events spurred creation of a law school clinic to provide free counsel to military personnel and their families who cannot afford it.

Launched in January 2004, the Clinic for Legal Assistance to Servicemembers (CLAS) is now formally operational. It has received recognition in a FY 2005 Department of Defense appropriation, and the five armed forces—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard—support it. Private foundations and prominent law firms have contributed operational funds. Moreover, the American Bar Association has identified the clinic as a model for a possible nationwide pilot program for Military Consumer Law Clinics.

Joe Zengerle, a Vietnam veteran who served as an assistant secretary of the Air Force and taught a law school seminar on homeland security, is the CLAS director. “We know of nothing like this in American legal education,” he says. “While other clinics focus on a subject area such as domestic violence or juvenile justice, we chose a population—military service personnel—because of school interests, geography, and timing.”

Through the clinic, legal assistance is provided to active duty personnel and mobilized reservists, and their families, for whom hiring a lawyer would constitute a financial hardship. Applicants have included the family of a soldier wounded in Baghdad combat, a reservist deployed to Afghanistan, and an officer seeking civilian employment after service in Iraq. Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va., and Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland have referred clients to the program.

In addition to supporting the armed forces, CLAS provides law students with practical and academic experience. “Our goal is to provide students with a hands-on opportunity to assist individual clients with real-world problems,” Zengerle says.

To enroll in the clinic, students must have completed their first year of law school. If litigation is involved, the student must have—or be qualified for—a third-year practice certificate. The goal is for each student to handle one case per semester.

In a typical scenario, the student conducts an initial screening of the applicant, and the director and student decide whether to accept the person as a client. Upon acceptance, the client signs a clinic engagement letter. Then, a supervisor with the appropriate specialty is chosen from a list of volunteer bar members in the jurisdiction (Virginia, Maryland, or the District of Columbia) where the matter arose. The supervisor works with the student in advising clients and preparing needed materials.

Students participating in the clinic attend classes that address topics such as the legal assistance program of the armed forces, ethical considerations in legal representations, and interviewing and counseling techniques. During the clinic’s first year, students included four active duty and former service members, three civilians, and two who intended to join a Judge Advocate General corps.

“George Mason showed its readiness to provide a good clinical program, while offering a location close to so many military installations,” Zengerle says. “And everything came together at the right time.”

People who need legal assistance and are eligible for the clinic may contact Zengerle at 703-993-8384 or

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