The former Veterans Law Project in New Hampshire was an unfortunate casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Zack Phillips, a 2L at UNH Franklin Pierce pursuing a joint master’s in public policy at the UNH Carsey School of Public Policy and a member of the U.S. Air Force, had been a volunteer for the group, which offered free legal services to veterans in New Hampshire.
Just when Phillips was contemplating how to get the program back up and running through the UNH Franklin Pierce law clinics, he was approached by fellow Carsey School MPP classmate Dakotah Thunder Wilson.
“He asked if I would be interested in helping him start a nonprofit,” says Phillips, who was on active military duty for more than 10 years before separating in August of 2020 to attend law school. He is now in the Air Force Reserves. “I told him I knew exactly what we could do.”
At the same time, Professor Marcia Levy and Dover-based attorney and Past President of the New Hampshire Bar Association, Larry Vogelman were discussing how to revive the project when they were approached by Zack and Dakotah. Phillips had previously worked with Levy at UNH Franklin Pierce as a leader of the student-run Veterans Law Society and, when the students discussed with her the idea of reconstituting a veterans legal assistance project, she set up a meeting with Vogelman, who had directed the Veterans Law Project.
Those conversations eventually led to the formation of Veterans Legal Justice New Hampshire (vljnh.org) (VLJ). While Phillips was connected to the military through his own service, Wilson’s father had served in the Navy. With help from Levy, Associate Dean Shane Cooper (a retired Navy JAG) and Jill O’Neill who is a co-facilitator of the New Hampshire Justice-Involved Veteran Task Force, Phillips and Wilson created a plan for VLJ, and launched the nonprofit on Veterans Day, November 11, 2022. “Our motto is that veterans have already served their country and now it is time we serve them,” Phillips explains.
During that initial meeting, Levy, Vogelman, O’Neill, and Cooper volunteered to join the two law students on the board of VLJ. Levy has helped to shape the structure of the organization and its fundraising outreach while Cooper has assisted with volunteer operations. Phillips remains grateful for their mentorship, while Levy and Cooper are proud to support the students’ efforts.
“This project is near and dear to my heart, and I am very proud that our UNH graduate students are aligned with such an important cause and service,” Cooper says. “These students and their demonstrated leadership are making an impactful difference in our state.”
While Phillips has taken the lead in responding to veterans who reach out for assistance, Wilson has set up the website, the donor information, and marketing for VLJ. Now months removed from its launch, VLJ is up and running, coordinating efforts for veterans looking for pro bono or reduced-fee legal services. While the majority of requests are made by veterans requesting advice on criminal law, family law, wills and estates, power of attorney, guardianship, and small businesses, Phillips says there also have been requests for help with patent and copyright issues.
Since November, the organization has served dozens of veterans, and will look to increase its visibility within the veteran community. One of the biggest focus items of VLJ heading into 2023 is to increase the number of active volunteers to help process new clients and adding to the list of professionals who are willing to provide legal aid. Vogelman has been spearheading the effort to recruit lawyers for that purpose. Phillips envisions an eventual expansion of VLJ that will include a staff of dedicated attorneys focused on helping veterans.
“I would really like to see us get to the point where we can be self-sustaining, being able to draw from the pool of veteran students to create an organization of veteran lawyers dedicated to helping veterans in the state,” Phillips says. “The biggest thing we offer, however, is an ear for veterans. While answering calls for both VLJ and during the previous Veterans Law Project, I have learned that veterans are just happy to have someone listen to them and show they care.”