Former servicewoman focuses legal service practice on meeting veterans’ legal needs

Issue February 2008 By Kate O’Toole

Lisa LaFera majored in psychology and criminal justice at Middle Tennessee State University, taking classes part time while she served in the U.S. Air Force. During college, LaFera once asked one of her professors — a former public defender — about the best way to start a career as a paralegal.
“He said to me, ‘Lisa, why be a paralegal? Have you thought about going to law school?’ And the thought had never occurred to me,” LaFera recalled.

A few years later, she moved to Nashua, N.H., where she lived and worked while attending New England School of Law. After graduating from law school, she wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to do. “I knew that I wanted to help and wanted to make more of a difference, but I wasn’t sure how,” she said.

LaFera went on to pass the bar in 2005.

Although she worked for the New Hampshire Department of Children and interned for the Public Defenders Office in Nashua during her time at New England School of Law, LaFera noted, “As a night student, internships are limited, clinics are limited and you get less trial experience.”

Through a friend who had interned at Shelter Legal Services, she found out about an opening for a supervising attorney there. LaFera landed the job and has been there for two years now, and “loves it.”

As one of two supervising attorneys at Shelter Legal Services — which has offices at Suffolk University Law School and Boston College Law School — LaFera serves between 50 and 75 clients and also manages her staff, which consists primarily of volunteer law students.

As a whole, Shelter serves more than 450 clients per year at Rosie’s Place, Cambridge Multi-Service Center for the Homeless, New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans and Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. LaFera focuses her work exclusively on veterans, most of whom fought in the Vietnam War. As a former member of the Air Force, LaFera said that she and her clients sometimes tease each other about the different branches of the military. “I love my clients,” she smiled.

Veterans struggle with a range of legal problems

LaFera explained how many Vietnam veterans were caught in a familiar cycle. Post-traumatic stress disorder was not widely addressed in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, only emerging as an issue of interest in the past two decades. As a result of untreated PTSD and other related medical issues, many soldiers struggled in their readjustment to civilian life and turned to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.

As a result, many veterans were incarcerated, trapped in failing marriages and found themselves lacking the ability to maintain steady employment and housing. Today, many of LaFera’s clients — mostly men in their 50s and 60s, whom she described as “independent and proud” — are facing a variety of legal problems.

“The biggest issues for my clients are child support modification and divorce,” LaFera said, “It’s an uphill battle for them.”

For ex-offenders trying to rebuild their lives, unresolved child support payments can be major obstacles. “It’s difficult for many of them to make headway. The Department of Revenue can garnish up to 65 percent of someone’s wages,” LaFera said, “And if they owe back child support, the Department of Motor Vehicles will prevent them from renewing their licenses.” This makes the prospect of stable employment seem even more arduous.

Aside from family issues, many of the older veterans are coping with end-of-life planning. This planning can be especially difficult to sort out for veterans who have little or no family and live in residential facilities like Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, which houses several hundred residents. Discussing wills, health care, burial arrangements and other important end-of-life choices with older veterans is essential, but challenging and often overlooked, LaFera said.

Along the same lines, Shelter Legal Services recently started to work on guardianship issues with older veterans suffering from dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative conditions that impair decision-making abilities. Although the vast majority of LaFera’s clients are men, she has also worked with a handful of women. “Many of the women are in their mid-40s and facing debt problems and divorce.” Some of them, like their male counterparts, are seeking discharge upgrades, which can affect their benefits.

Help from volunteers

Thanks to volunteer law students, and the growing support of both nonprofit organizations and law firms, Shelter Legal Services continues to grow.
“We have an orientation in the fall that teaches students how to work with clients, and also covers ethics, which is important when it comes to issues of confidential-ity,” she explained. Some of the volun-
teers are also attorneys who volunteered for Shelter when they were law students. “We’re always looking for volunteers, and hope that the volunteer work can be treated more like a clinic by the local law schools, so they can get credit for volunteering.”
“One of our ultimate goals is to open outreach offices in other parts of the state,” LaFera said. She hopes that even-
tually law students from Western New England College School of Law could volunteer in a Springfield-based office.
LaFera is also grateful for the support of WilmerHale, which has volunteered to assist with wills, trusts and estates issues at Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. “Even though the veterans usually have minimal assets, this is a neglected area of law,” she said. LaFera was also excited to report that their first will signing was held on Jan. 16 at the soldiers’ home.

Looking ahead

LaFera and her colleagues are appreciative of the assistance of the private sector, but she emphasized that there is still more work to be done. Aside from opening more offices and expanding the services that the organization already offers, LaFera hopes to introduce a pro-
gram specifically tailored for incarcerated veterans to help them with civil actions before they get out of jail.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are more than 23 million veterans in the United States, including more than 400,000 in Massachusetts. Of those 400,000 veterans, 7,000 are homeless. “Shelter is the only legal service agency that is geared specifically towards veterans’ issues,” she pointed out, adding that it is essential that funding and resources continue to be focused toward this significant population of Americans.

Although the majority of her clients served during the Vietnam War, LaFera wrapped up by briefly commenting on the Iraq War: “We haven’t seen a lot of Iraq War veterans yet, mostly because we would only see them if they were homeless,” she said. “Many of them are in the reserves, and are going through reserves channels to access services. But we know it’s coming.”

To learn more about Shelter Legal Services, visit