When Army veteran Radcliffe Palmer, 46, returned home to Newark in 2006 after serving more than a year in Iraq, the onset of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) left him in need of treatment and struggling to find employment, but that didn’t stop his two kids’ child support payments from mounting.
“You feel helpless, and it’s not for lack of trying,” the divorced father said of his escalating financial burden, “but things just got overwhelming.”
One day in 2012, however, while receiving treatment at the VA New Jersey Healthcare System’s Lyons campus in Bernards, he noticed a flyer promoting the availability of free legal services for veterans from Fox Rothschild LLP in Princeton, and promptly signed up to meet with one of the firm’s attorneys.
After taking on Palmer’s case, attorney Alain Leibman “went over my options with me, arranged for the child support to stop accumulating, and established a reasonable payment plan that I could work with,” Palmer said. “He held my hand through the whole thing and was very, very helpful — I truly can’t thank him enough.”
Veteran Henry Burch similarly raves about the life-changing legal services he received from Fox Rothschild free of charge.
“My wife and I raised our three grandchildren after their parents were no longer able to care for them and we needed to legally adopt them in order to get benefits for them,” said the 69-year-old Plainfield resident who served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division from 1966 to 1968.
After learning of the legal services available to him at the Lyons campus, Burch met with attorney Bob Rohrberger, “who did all of the legal work for me and organized an efficient strategy for adopting each of our grandchildren as they turned 18,” Burch said. “Bob and his firm were so professional, courteous, and thoughtful and I just have so much gratitude for them.”
An opportunity to give back
Though Fox Rothschild is a full-service, 600-lawyer practice with 20 offices nationwide, its attorneys have taken a uniquely local and personal approach when it comes to serving the needs of veterans.
“Our veteran’s assistance program started in 2011 as a series of conversations I had with a friend who was a drug counselor for the VA,” Leibman, a partner at Fox Rothschild, explained. “He said that a lot of the vets he worked with had legal issues that they didn’t have the resources or coping skills to deal with.
Many of these matters weren’t very complicated and were fixable with legal guidance, time, and care, such as non-payment of child support, landlord-tenant issues, preparation of wills, driving violations and fines, and expungement of offenses from a veteran’s record over time. But while the VA provided strong medical and emotional support to veterans, it didn’t offer legal assistance, and so these issues could become the difference between being employed or unemployed.
“The VA could cure the body and treat mental health disorders,” Liebman added, “but couldn’t always restore veterans to being fully productive citizens.” The discussions sparked an idea for Leibman.
“Our firm is very supportive of pro-bono efforts, so we immediately approached the VA lawyers and worked out a memorandum of understanding whereby we could hold legal clinics for veterans in office space at the Lyons campus,” said the 57-year-old Highland Park resident.
As it turned out, the timing for such a program couldn’t have been better, as former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki was encouraging private lawyers to provide free services to assist veterans. Despite promotion of this practice, however, “no other law firm in the country was going onsite to VA facilities to meet with veterans and take on their cases,” Leibman said.
By contrast, the staff members of Fox Rothschild felt it was their obligation to answer the call.
A professional program
Making themselves available at the Lyons campus from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Fridays once every two months, up to 10 lawyers (often partners) from Fox Rothschild will see veterans on a first-come, first-served basis for as long as necessary and have often met with as many as several dozen veterans in a session.
“We don’t get involved in criminal cases where the veteran already has court-appointed counsel or in any cases against the VA or other entities that represent a conflict of interest for our firm,” said Leibman, who noted that “many of the cases don’t involve a great amount of money, but it’s important to the veteran and they need it. Many veterans just need someone to help them facilitate communications with the other side or act as a referee.”
Since launching its ‘Lyons VA Clinic’ three years ago, the Fox Rothschild team has handled more than 200 veterans’ matters and pursued relief of some kind, from preparing letters to making court appearances on behalf of their clients. “We find that once a veteran has legal representation, it formalizes things quickly — the other party now knows that someone’s fighting for the vet and the conversation changes dramatically,” he said.
According to Mark Correale, veteran justice outreach specialist for the VA New Jersey Health Care System, “several hundred veterans have received advice and counsel from staff at various law firms, including Fox Rothschild, during pro-bono legal clinics offered at the Lyons Campus. Many veterans don’t know where to turn for help and some are fearful of seeking assistance due to cost, inability to pay, or fear of being taken into custody and losing benefits.
Since the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can’t provide legal services, this service enables veterans to meet with a lawyer face-to-face in order to begin working on their legal situation in concurrence with other treatments. Overall, the partnership with these firms greatly enhances the services offered to our veterans in New Jersey.”
Meeting with a range of veterans of all ages who are grappling with a variety of different issues — from homelessness and dependency problems to PTSD and family-related situations — “it’s about the small encounters and trying to make the world better for each person we engage,” Leibman said. “These men and women have done a great service for us, so we feel that the least we can do is listen to their problems and try to fix them.”
“The fact that there was somebody there to help me through a situation that I wasn’t able to address on my own was invaluable,” Palmer said of the year-long assistance he received from Leibman, who kept the process organized for his client and personally reached out to him to remind him of court dates and other important matters. “If vets like me don’t have this kind of help, things can just go from bad to untenable. I’m very grateful for what Alain did and the time he took on my behalf at no cost.”
“The legal team was very knowledgeable and did an outstanding job,” agreed Burch, who successfully adopted his three grandchildren between 2012 and 2014 thanks to the legal support he received from Rohrberger and whose 18-year-old grandson is currently preparing to enter the military.
“Veterans need firms like these to represent them in an honest way. It’s a wonderful program and the lawyers truly do it from the heart,” Burch said. “We give them 110 percent praise for what they did for us and would recommend them to anyone.”
Leibman said he’s been overwhelmed by the exceptional group of veterans he’s met through the program and the sincere gratitude they’ve extended. “It’s been rewarding for us both as a firm as well as for each one of us who’s had the privilege of participating and we’re dedicated to shining a light on a population that’s often underserved and underappreciated,” he said.
“The veterans we work with are extremely appreciative and we get wonderful expressions of thanks for what we do,” Leibman added. “They’ll say ‘thank you so much,’ to which we always say ‘thank you.’ We just want them to leave the experience feeling that someone cares.”
To reach the VA’s Lyons campus at 151 Knollcroft Road in the Lyons section of Bernards or to inquire about the free Lyons VA Legal Clinics, call (908) 647-0180 or visit www.newjersey.va.gov.