Gavel in front of an American Flag
UCI School of Law volunteers help Marines in custody disputes and other family law cases, home foreclosures, landlord-tenant feuds and citizenship applications. Many U.S. service members are underrepresented legally.

Tom Wilson signed up for the UC Irvine School of Law’s pro bono program because he wanted to help underrepresented members of the community get legal issues resolved. He quickly learned that many members of the nation’s military fall into that “underrepresented” category.

Since spring 2010, UCI law students have volunteered at Camp Pendleton, doing pro bono work in the U.S. Marine Corps’ Joint Legal Assistance Office. They conduct research, draft legal documents and assist military personnel in custody disputes and other family law cases, home foreclosures, landlord-tenant feuds and citizenship applications.

Five students – Adam Barry, Sunny Hwang, Jennifer Ludolph, Matt Plunkett and Wilson – were involved in this pro bono project during the 2011-12 school year, driving 50 miles south to the Marine base nearly every week, hooked on the satisfaction of helping settle real-world legal conflicts.

And they were touched by the gratitude of the servicemen and women.

“It was disturbing to see how many landlords in the Oceanside/Fallbrook area would prey on young Marines,” says Wilson, whose father was in the U.S. Army and the National Guard. “The Marines are allowed to get out of leases under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. But frequently, landlords would get the Marine to sign a lease addendum waiving his or her right to break the lease, and then the landlord would try to keep the security deposit money.”

He and Barry helped Marines in this situation get their money back. “In most cases, we were talking about $1,000 to $2,000 – not multimillion-dollar deals – but we were usually dealing with 18- to 25-year-olds who needed that money that’s legally theirs,” Wilson says. “I can’t think of too many more disrespectful ways to treat service members about to be deployed by our armed forces than to try to illegally withhold their security deposits.”

Wilson also found his citizenship work at Camp Pendleton’s Joint Legal Assistance Office compelling and fulfilling. “I was amazed at the number of Marines and spouses who are not U.S. citizens,” he says. “There would be at least 10 Marines and/or spouses at these [citizenship] meetings about twice a month. It was powerful to see how many individuals use military service as a means to gain full citizenship.”

In one case, Wilson helped expedite the citizenship process for a Marine of Haitian background and his wife in order to get the wife out of earthquake-crippled Haiti as soon as possible.

Capt. Jake Warren, former supervising attorney at the Camp Pendleton Joint Legal Assistance Office, expresses gratitude for the UCI law students’ dedication. With only a few attorneys staffing the office – which serves the entire base – the students were instrumental in assisting more Marines, he says. “We hope we can continue to get UCI law students to help out here,” Warren adds.

He can count on at least one: Wilson is engaged in clinical training this semester but plans to return to Camp Pendleton in the spring for more pro bono work.