When applying to law schools, aspiring JAG candidate Elizabeth Shirey had an atypical criterion: offerings related to the military and veterans. Partly due to its location next door to the VA campus and course options like Law of War & the War(s) on Terror and Anti-Terrorism & Criminal Enforcement, Elizabeth chose UCLA School of Law.
After a gap year working for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth was eager to serve local veterans. As the city with the highest number of homeless veterans in the nation, Los Angeles struggles with a gap between high demand for legal services and low supply of veterans advocates. As a 1L volunteer at UCLA Law’s monthly Veterans Clinic on the VA campus, Elizabeth encountered homeless veterans with a wide variety of legal needs, from expungement to VA benefits to family law. Aiming to do more for this population, she took on the role of clinic director for the next two years and joined the Board of the Veterans Law Society, UCLA Law’s student group for veterans and their supporters.
In 2012, Elizabeth worked to bring the Veterans Clinic within UCLA Law’s El Centro Legal group of public interest clinics, which grew the clinic’s volunteer base. Responding to growing student interest in serving veterans and building practical legal skills, Elizabeth reached out to Inner City Law Center (ICLC)’s Homeless Veterans Project to help formulate a second program for the clinic. In spring and fall 2013, ICLC Senior Staff Attorney Melissa Tyner traveled to campus biweekly to supervise a group of Veterans Clinic volunteers. Elizabeth and other students reviewed thousands of pages of military and medical records to assist homeless veterans seeking VA benefits for disabilities such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Military Sexual Trauma.
Building on the expanded Veterans Clinic, Elizabeth and three student-veterans from the Veterans Law Society were eager to cement legal services for homeless veterans into the law school’s curriculum. After researching models at over 25 other law schools, they proposed a veteran-focused clinical course to law school administrators. With Tyner at the helm as adjunct faculty, the Veterans Benefits Legal Clinic launched in spring 2015.
After graduating from UCLA Law in 2014, Elizabeth continued working with homeless veterans as a legal fellow at ICLC, funded by UCLA Law’s New Graduate Opportunity Program, which funds recent graduates for 200 hours of public interest legal work. After funding ended, Elizabeth contributed an additional 200 hours to ICLC pro bono, and continues to volunteer at monthly Veterans Clinic sessions at the VA.
Elizabeth currently works as a law clerk in UCLA’s Office of Legal Affairs, and is slated to enter the Navy JAG Corps in fall 2015. She hopes to see continued expansion of the law school’s work with homeless veterans at the VA, and believes UCLA Law can be a leader in closing the gap in legal services and building a much-needed generation of new advocates for veterans.