JACKSONVILLE – Since its start in 2013, Florida Coastal School of Law’s Veterans Legal Collaborative has served an average of 150 of Jacksonville’s veterans annually, as of September. Pooling the resources and skill of area lawyers, Florida Coastal students, and other professionals, the Veterans Legal Collaborative takes a holistic approach to serving veterans in a wide variety of circumstances.
Sarah R. Sullivan, founder of the Veterans Legal Collaborative and professor at Florida Coastal, set out to put together a community initiative that would involve private attorneys, provide practical learning experience for law students, and partner with veterans service organizations in order to serve veterans in the Northeast Florida community. As a result, Sullivan has managed to rally together the efforts of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid’s Medical Legal Partnership, the Wounded Warrior Project, the Department of Veterans Affairs clinic, Three Rivers Legal Services and Florida Coastal staff and students.
Through the VLC, veterans are served entirely on a pro-bono basis via walk-in clinics, with no appointments or fees. From 11 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. every second Friday, members of the VLC collaborative’s representatives gather in downtown Jacksonville at the Veterans Health Administration outpatient clinic on Jefferson Street.
All veterans are invited to seek legal counsel at these legal clinics, regardless of their health, age, income level, or type of legal problem.
“All general civil legal assistance [is provided],” Sullivan told the Florida Record, “but many veterans need help with family law issues (based on reduced income brought on by disability from service), housing, consumer issues and benefits (both Social Security and veterans benefits).”
Jacksonville is home to thousands of veterans, many of whom are homeless for reasons related to mental health. Sullivan launched the collaborative in order to respond not only to address veterans’ legal needs, but their general well-being. This holistic approach to caring for veterans inspired the partnership with a variety of professional including those of varying legal expertise, medical professionals and social workers.
“Uniquely, we have several dedicated social workers and a myriad of medical/psychological services at our fingertips through the Medical/Legal Partnership and through the Veterans Treatment Court,” Sullivan said. “Depression, PTSD, addiction and other psychiatric injuries from war are common in our veteran population and that carries through to their life choices and their adjustment to civilian life. Legal problems and mental health issues co-occur frequently and our unique holistic and collaborative model is designed to provide support for both to allow a path to success for the veteran.”
Sullivan added that a holistic approach to serving veterans only works if the veterans themselves are open to such assistance, which extends beyond free legal counsel.
“That is one of the foundations of the VLC,” Sullivan said. “If you aren’t actively seeking treatment of your injuries, solving your immediate legal issue will only be a Band-Aid and won’t improve your long-term outcomes. That is why having the partners engaged and willing to provide what many social providers call ‘wrap-around’ services are important for this population of veterans.”
Florida Coastal students actively participate in the greeting and hosting of veterans at these clinics, as well as observing practicing attorneys. Sullivan and other members of the VLC are actively seeking to develop new legal and professional partnerships in order to better assist more of Northeast Florida’s veterans.