Law students serve those who serve their country

09-13-2012

Iris Yokoi

Tom Wilson signed up for UCI Law's Pro Bono Program because he wanted to help underrepresented members of the community get legal issues resolved. He quickly learned that many members of our nation's military fall into that "underrepresented" category.

Since Spring 2010, UCI Law students have volunteered at Camp Pendleton, doing pro bono work in the U.S. Marine Corps Joint Legal Assistance Office. The students do research, draft legal documents and assist military personnel in custody disputes and other family law cases, home foreclosures, landlord-tenant disputes, and citizenship applications.

Five students – Adam Barry, Sunny Hwang, Jennifer Ludolph, Matt Plunkett and Wilson – were involved in this pro bono project during the 2011-2012 school year, driving 50 miles south to the Marine base nearly every week, hooked on the satisfaction of helping settle real-world legal disputes.

And they were touched by the gratitude of the military personnel.

"It was disturbing to see how many landlords in the Oceanside/ Fallbrook area would prey on young Marines," said Wilson, whose father served in the U.S. Army and the National Guard. "The Marines are allowed to get out of their lease under the Service members Civil Relief Act (SCRA). But frequently, landlords would get the Marine to sign a lease addendum that would 'waive' his or her rights to break the lease and then the landlord would try to keep the security deposit money."

Wilson and Barry represented Marines to help them to get their money back. "In most cases we were talking about $1,000-$2,000 – not multimillion-dollar deals, but we were usually dealing with a population of 18- to 25-year-olds who need that money that is legally theirs," Wilson said.

"I can't think of too many more disrespectful ways to treat a service member who is about to be deployed by our armed forces than to try and illegally withhold their security deposit."

Wilson also worked with the citizenship program at the Joint Legal Assistance Office and found that experience compelling and fulfilling. "I was amazed at the number of Marines and spouses who are not U.S. citizens – there would be at least 10 Marines and/or spouses at these meetings about twice a month. It was powerful to see how many individuals use military service as a means to gain full citizenship."

In one case, Wilson helped a Marine of Haitian background expedite the process to gain U.S. citizenship for both him and his wife, to help get his wife out of earthquake-crippled Haiti.

Capt. Jake Warren, former supervising attorney at the Camp Pendleton Joint Legal Assistance Office, expressed gratitude for the UCI Law students' dedicated work. With only a handful of attorneys staffing the legal aid office for the entire base, the students were instrumental in assisting more Marines, Warren said. "We hope we can continue to get UCI law students to help out here," said Warren.

Students interested in this Camp Pendleton pro bono project should contact Anna Davis, Director of Public Interest Programs.

Following his first semester of pro bono work at Camp Pendleton, Wilson was able to earn externship credit for the second semester he worked at the JLAO. While he is devoted to clinical work this fall semester, Wilson hopes to return in the spring to Camp Pendleton for more pro bono work.

Meanwhile, Barry continues to assist service members this semester through another pro bono project. He and fellow student Darren Kerstien are volunteers at the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, helping veterans get their legal issues resolved through the Orange County Veterans Court.