Laura Smythe

Laura Smythe directs pro bono programs for the University of Wisconsin Law School

When veterans seek out legal help from the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Veterans Law Center, Laura Smythe says they often tell the lawyers and students they’re working with, “I don’t even know what my first step should be.”

The legal system can feel daunting and bewildering to anyone. But for veterans readjusting to life outside the military those challenges might be even tougher, says Smythe, who directs pro bono programs at the law school that include the Veterans Law Center and more than two dozen other legal aid initiatives.

To give veterans the help they need, the law center offers free, walk-in legal advice from volunteer attorneys and law students three times each month around Madison.

The center is open at the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month; at Porchlight Inc., 306 N. Brooks St., from 5 to 7 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month; and at the Madison Veteran’s Hospital, 2500 Overlook Terrace, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the fourth Friday of each month.

Since it opened in 2012, the center has helped nearly 300 veterans handle legal matters such as evictions, divorce and bankruptcy, Smythe said, and is looking to assist more around Wisconsin.

In August, the program held its first mobile law center in Appleton, and plans to return to the city in December. Smythe said the law center is making plans to visit other parts of the state as well, and is raising money to buy a van it could use for its mobile efforts.

Smythe splits her time between Madison and the Fox Cities, where she works as a business consultant in Appleton and a professor at UW-Green Bay.

The Veterans Law Center lets students learn by watching more experienced attorneys work with clients, Smythe says, and like other pro-bono programs, helps them realize the law school’s motto of “Law in action.”

What makes the legal system difficult for veterans in particular to navigate?

Many of them are accustomed to a very highly structured, ordered lifestyle. For some of them, they’re accustomed to being told, “This is what your day looks like, this is what you’ll do, this is where you’ll be.”

For those who come out of service who have been given a great deal of authority, it’s really difficult for them to transition back into civilian life, where suddenly they must defer to a legal system that, for most lay people, makes absolutely no sense.

It’s this personal transition of, “Who am I when I am not in the military?”

What is the response you hear from veterans who get legal help through the center?

They’re remarkably grateful and gracious, and I feel like I am the one benefiting from working with them, because they’ve done so much for us. Then they have a question that we can answer in a few minutes, or perhaps it takes an hour, and they’re so very grateful.

From my frame of reference it’s a very small act, but from their frame of reference it’s a necessary building block so that they can become independent as a civilian.

How do law students benefit from programs such as the Veterans Law Center?

Many of our volunteer law students are veterans themselves, or reservists, or have family members who are veterans or are serving actively. So there’s frequently a personal draw.

But there’s also been an awful lot of stories in the news in the past four to five years about veterans services and the fact that there’s a lot of room for improvement and a lot of unmet need. And so that’s just one area we find law students entering law school know about, and when we mention that we have a veterans law center, it’s something that they recognize as a national issue.

How gratifying is it to focus your work on pro bono projects?

I really like the flexibility and the variety our pro bono program offers … I also hope, from a very idealistic standpoint, to generate enough enthusiasm about this sort of work that, as (law students) become employed as attorneys and move on in life, that they will retain an interest in continuing to do pro bono work.

— Interview by Nico Savidge

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