Service to Soldiers: Legal Assistance Referral Program

Since 2007, Thomas Cooley's Service to Soldiers: Legal Assistance Referral Program has been offering free legal assistance to Michigan and Florida military personnel who are deploying to, are serving in, or have recently returned from deployment and are experiencing civilian legal concerns. This program is offered state-wide to servicemembers of E5 rank or below in Michigan, and rank E5 and below in Florida, and works cooperatively with other veteran and military assistance programs throughout Michigan. In particular, the ABA Military Pro Bono Project asked to partner with Cooley Law School to combine the resources of both programs and provide greater coverage to service members. Service to Soldiers has been a valuable partner to the ABA Military Pro Bono Project and Department of Defense Office of Legal Policy. The program has allowed Cooley students, alumni, staff, and Michigan and Florida attorneys the opportunity to give back to those who have sacrificed so much for our country.

About the Program

Initiated by the Director of Cooley's Center for Ethics, Service, and Professionalism Heather Spielmaker, with assistance from the Michigan National Guard JAG office, Michigan and Florida soldiers on active duty and returning from war receive help with a variety of legal issues ranging from government disability determinations, to probate and estate planning, to reemployment. These soldiers receive free legal service through this referral program, which matches soldiers with Cooley Law School alumni and other attorneys who offer their specialized legal assistance to U.S. military personnel. Thousands of military personnel have received free legal assistance through the generosity of our participating faculty, alumni, students, and members of the legal community. Assistance has been offered in preparing wills and powers of attorney, and with handling family law issues, landlord disputes, insurance problems, and creditor/debtor concerns.

An important milestone in the reputation and breadth of the program came when the Service to Soldiers program teamed with the Michigan State Bar Foundation and the Michigan law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn to write and publish The Michigan Judge's Guide to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). Written by volunteer attorneys at Honigman and researched by a Cooley alumnus, this bench book was sent to every judge in the state using grant funds secured from the Michigan State Bar Foundation.

The Service to Soldiers Program stretched to new distances in July 2009 when it sponsored the swearing-in of Cooley Auburn Hills graduate Miles Gengler via satellite while he was deployed in Iraq. Then-Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court Marilyn Kelly administered the lawyers’ oath from Michigan as Major Gengler's wife, children, parents, friends, and Cooley family watched Major Gengler take the oath on a video projection from Iraq.

Over 180 participating Michigan and Florida attorneys, many of them Cooley alumni, standing ready to offer their pro bono services when called upon to help our nation's brave defenders. Assisting with this program in various ways are 300 students who have offered legal briefings to small groups of deploying servicemen and women, conducted client in-take interviews, researched relevant case law, given presentations to groups of returning veterans and Viet Nam-era veterans, drafted wills and powers of attorney under the supervision of licensed attorneys, staffed information booths, researched legal issues for inclusion in The Michigan Judge's Guide to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), and handled many of the administrative tasks necessary in maintaining the program. In fact, student volunteers contribute so generously to the administration of the program that the program's on-going success has come to depend greatly upon their labor.