Access to justice is a fundamental right, but it can be expensive. In fact, many people with low incomes—including those who served our country to defend that right—are unable to ensure their legal rights because of the cost.
Antoinette Balta, however, wants to ensure that the right to justice is extended to ALL Americans. “I co-founded Veterans Legal Institute to build a platform where low income and homeless veterans could utilize a free attorney. This impactful resource helps veterans access housing and healthcare, get that job, and utilize the education benefits that they earned because they served. It ensures a better future for them and their families.”
Balta was inspired to start Veterans Legal Institute out of a desire to give back to her country. “My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, and they taught me to be grateful that I could grow up here, particularly because of the rights that women have that aren’t guaranteed in other countries.”
After obtaining her law degree, Balta began working as an attorney. The work was lucrative, but not very inspiring. That’s when she transitioned into working at a local legal aid through the AmeriCorps program and volunteering at a local armory that provided emergency shelter services. “I noticed that a high percentage of military were part of the homeless population, so I told my boss that I wanted to convert my AmeriCorps partnership into a way to help them.” He agreed, and she was instrumental in starting a veterans unit there, while building the groundwork for over two years to create the Veterans Legal Institute. Her methodology was simple: a wholly military centric nonprofit that provides no-strings-attached free legal services to veterans and active service members who can otherwise not afford them.
“Veterans and other vulnerable groups are better served by organizations that focus on that group. They know the culture. I knew I had to build a law firm that helped them get jobs and remove barriers. Our case types range from landlord/tenant issues to estate planning for older adults and terminally ill veterans to limited family law, veterans’ benefits, discharge upgrades, and more. When you leave the military, it can feel like you’re leaving your family, which makes it even harder.” Approximately 20% of veterans need assistance with benefits or discharge upgrades, but civilian groups often don’t offer that specialty. Plus, they don’t specifically hire people who know about military life or have a rapport with members already.
Only a small handful of law firms in the country focus solely on the mission of serving veterans. Over the past five years, Veterans Legal Institute has helped over 6000 veterans. “It’s tough when you don’t know where to turn for help. Roughly 22 veterans a day commit suicide. The veterans who have received advocacy are less likely to become a statistic. Our greatest impact has been saving lives.”
The staff of Veterans Legal Institute acts as advocates for those who have lost faith in the system. In fact, some of those helped were so inspired by the organization that they have gone on to law school themselves so they can make a difference, too.
Veterans can access services by filling out a quick, simple application on the website (vetslegal.com). Also, mobile legal clinics travel to places frequented by veterans monthly, such as the VA hospital in Long Beach, Calif., to serve them directly onsite. Cases are handled pro bono via a staff of under ten people and over 200 volunteers. Balta, a former Presidential Leadership Scholar, focused her personal leadership project on free mobile legal clinics, and shares her model nationally to inspire other like-minded attorneys and community leaders to promote access to justice.
Though they aren’t wearing a uniform, members of Veterans Legal Institute are contributing to this country by keeping veterans from falling through the cracks.
Balta said that there is always a way for anyone to help a cause that calls to them. “Everyone has something to give: time, talent, or treasure. Decide what cause speaks to you, and find an organization that helps. Veterans Legal Institute offer lots of ways to give back: speaking, volunteering at the office, attending events, being a sponsor, sitting on the board, or providing services like web development or graphic design.”
Veterans Legal Institute is holding their 2019 Lawyers for Warriors networking and fundraising event on September 23 from 5:30–8 pm at The Center Club in Costa Mesa, Calif. This annual event is an evening of fun, networking, wine, cigars, appetizers, and surprises. Mingle with legal, financial, military, real estate, and other professional industries and help veterans forge new futures at home.
For tickets or sponsorship information, please contact Antoinette Balta at 949-290-5733 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Veterans Legal Institute, please visit vetslegal.com.