George Mason University is poised to get a $750,000 federal grant for a fledgling legal clinic that provides free advice to men and women in the military.
The clinic assists people on active duty in Northern Virginia and gives law students practical experience before they graduate. Though many law schools have clinics that help low-income people with disputes over matters such as rental issues, for example, George Mason's is the only one dedicated to military clients, said Dan Polsby, acting dean of the law school.
Federal money for the clinic was included in the Defense appropriations bill that was approved recently by the House of Representatives. The clinic money is expected to remain in the bill when it comes out of a conference committee with the Senate, said a spokesman for Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), an appropriations subcommittee member who was instrumental in placing the grant in the bill.
Every branch of the military already offers some legal services to its members, but those providers often are overburdened, said Joe Zengerle, executive director of the George Mason clinic, known as the Clinic for Legal Assistance to Service Members.
The clinic is still in its infancy. It began in January, with a $25,000 grant from the Zickler Family Foundation and four senior law students, all of whom had some military background. Three were veterans, having served in the Army, Air Force and Navy, and one came from a family with generations of service in the Marines. A handful of clients sought help from the clinic after hearing about it on an Internet "blog," or online journal. Among them were the parents of a soldier who had been injured in Iraq.
But the clinic still faces the task of carving out a niche for itself, perhaps by specializing in areas that are underserved by existing military services.
"Other law school clinics tend to concentrate in subject matters, like juvenile justice or domestic violence," said Zengerle, a former Army Ranger who served in Vietnam. "We've chosen a population. They will have a diverse set of questions. One thing we need to figure out is whether we can focus on particular areas in which we could develop expertise."
Polsby said the decision to have a legal clinic dedicated to the military in part reflects the geography of the law school campus, in the shadow of the Pentagon, as well as its philosophy. The law school is located at Virginia Square in Arlington County.
"It's not exactly a secret that the culture of higher education in America is anti-military," Polsby said. "We're a little different in the law school. We're near the Pentagon, with a lot of military and naval officers in our student body. I just don't think we drink very deeply from the same cultural springs that some of our brother and sister schools drink from."
Zengerle said he hopes that, down the road, the clinic could be just one of many law school clinics catering to service members.
"I think it would be healthy for the country," said Zengerle, who keeps in his desk a newspaper column lamenting that the burden of the war on terror falls on a small cadre of Americans. "We're stepping up, trying to do a modest thing -- pitch in and help the troops, and maybe inspire one or two others to think along the same lines."