Ryan McMenamin L’17 works as a legal fellow with the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) of Onondaga County in New York, where he provides legal representation to veterans. Penn Law’s Office of Communications spoke with McMenamin about his fellowship with VLP and what led him to public interest work.
Penn Law: Tell us about your fellowship. What problems are you responding to and what is the goal of your project?
Ryan McMenamin: I represent low-income veterans in Central New York on various civil matters. Sometimes I provide direct advocacy and other times limited-scope representation or advice and counsel. My host organization (VLP) is located in Syracuse, but I hold walk-in clinics in several different counties. This is a highly concentrated area for veterans. There are more veterans living here than in Philadelphia County, but there are fewer options for legal assistance than in larger cities like Manhattan and Philadelphia.
Syracuse University Law School has a legal clinic that handles administrative actions for veterans filing claims with the VA, so I chose to focus my project on general civil issues. Since I work with a specific client population and not on a particular area of law, my cases run the gamut: torts, eviction defense, custody, child support, uncontested divorces, breach of contract, to name some.
The goal is to provide world-class legal advocacy to veterans, and more broadly to make a big enough splash in the community that stakeholders come to realize this program is needed for the long-term. Since launching in September, I have had nearly 90 clients.
PL: How did your experiences before and during law school lead you to this project or public interest generally?
RM: I served in the military before law school and my wife is an active-duty JAG officer, but my clinical and pro bono work at Penn Law was probably more instrumental. I didn’t become interested in public interest law until I had my first clients through the Housing Law Project during my 2L year.
Sitting through a session at Philadelphia’s Landlord-Tenant Court is a harrowing experience, and I would recommend that any student go watch one morning. Nearly all of the “respondents” sitting in the pews are young, black mothers. The landlords and lawyers are usually white, and usually men. The proceedings begin with a roll call by the lawyers for the landlords, who read off the names of those facing eviction. Most do not respond because they are not present, and so a court administrator evicts them by default. The attorney then reads in the money judgment amount for back rent, which the administrator accepts and records.
The whole system seemed so divorced from the catastrophic reality of eviction for these families – it really shook me. I later got so much out of representing tenants that I decided then that my future practice had to involve working directly with clients.
PL: What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of delivering legal services to the veteran community?
RM: The breadth of legal issues I deal with is probably the most challenging aspect, but that’s also why I enjoy it so much. I spend a lot of time reaching out to subject matter experts and case conferencing with colleagues. With every new client comes a fresh legal area that I have to get up to speed on. Last year I was a law clerk and got to see first-hand how a judge handles such a wide-ranging caseload, and I think in some ways that showed me how to embrace the diversity.
PL: What issue or particular circumstance do you see as creating the greatest unmet need in terms of legal representation for veterans?
RM: The veterans I help are generally poor, so their problems track the indigent population writ large: family law, housing, and consumer/debt-related issues. There is not one specific issue that veterans cannot obtain help with, rather their problem is access, either because they live in rural areas with no legal services, or because they do not qualify for assistance based on their income. Strikingly, a veteran who is considered 100 percent disabled because of past military service receives VA benefits that just exceed the income threshold for traditional legal assistance.
PL: Thus far, what accomplishment during your fellowship are you most proud of?
RM: White-collar defense lawyers often say their best cases are the ones no one has ever heard about, meaning they were able to intervene early enough to prevent the prosecutor from filing charges in the first place. I feel that way too. My greatest “wins” are when my client does not have to go to court because I was able to negotiate a favorable settlement or otherwise convince the other side not to proceed.