From the Marines to Big Law, Attorney Gives Back to Vets

By Stephanie Russell-Kraft

Since she was young watching “Perry Mason” and “Matlock,” Krystyna Blakeslee always knew she wanted to be a lawyer.

But she took a slight detour in her career path when she finished high school, enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1999. She served for four years, through the beginning of the Iraq War.

Blakeslee is now a real-estate finance partner at Dechert, and believes that time in the military helped sharpen the skills she uses every day in her legal practice.

She had to track a lot of people and equipment in the service without ever losing track of a thing. It’s not that different from transactional law, she says.

Blakeslee this year spearheaded the launch of an affinity group called Dechert Heroes, which brings together veterans, military spouses and parents, and lawyers interested in veterans affairs.

Part of the mission of the affinity group is to work with pro bono organizations like The Veterans Consortium that helps veterans with their legal needs.

“We see a lot of folks with PTSD, drug abuse, and sexual trauma,” Blakeslee told Bloomberg Law. “Being a veteran, I feel like it’s easier to connect with people who are veterans, so it’s a way I’ve found that I can give back that’s meaningful to me.”

Dechert is one of many Big Law firms working to help veterans.

Benefits, Transitions

Part of the affinity group’s mission at Dechert is to work with pro bono organizations. A discharge upgrade is a common legal need.

For instance, veterans discharged under the former Pentagon policy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and veterans suffering from mental health issues discharged under less than honorable terms are now eligible to have their records upgraded. These veterans can be excluded from benefits like health care and housing assistance without an upgrade.

In Atlanta, lawyers from Troutman Sanders visit the local VA hospital twice a month to help veterans in the palliative care department with their legal needs.

San Diego partner and Marine Corps veteran Justin Nahama serves as pro bono general counsel for The Honor Foundation, which helps Navy SEALs and other Special Forces transition into business from active duty.

Also, attorneys from Blank Rome’s Pittsburgh office volunteered to help more than 30 veterans upgrade their paperwork.

“One of our partners was able to get benefits for a veteran that went back to 1953,” said Kathy Ochroch, director of pro bono services at Blank Rome. “The difference you can make is astounding.”

Lawyers from Reed Smith over the past decade have helped more than 60 injured veterans receive benefits they may not have received otherwise.

The firm, which has approximately 55 self-identified veterans across its U.S. offices, also recently launched a veterans business inclusion group led by partner Jesse Miller, a colonel in the California Army National Guard.

“Given the large number of veterans and military families throughout the Reed Smith offices, including many still currently serving in the reserve components, it was our desire to honor their patriotic service and sacrifice on behalf of all Americans,” he said.