The MoFo Veterans Affinity Group and Diversity Strategy Committee recently co-hosted its first quarterly discussion with partner Stacey Sprenkel, associate Matt Blum, and National Security Analyst Reema Shocair Ali, moderated by litigation law clerk Dave Allman.
Washington, D.C. partner and chair of the MoFo Vets Affinity Group Mark Whitaker, also a Navy veteran and co-chair of the firm’s Diversity Strategy Committee, kicked off the discussion by introducing the participants and handing it over to the group’s co-founder, Dave Allman, who provided an overview of the affinity group and its purpose.
Comprised of partners, associates, and staff, MoFo Vets provides a platform for employees who are veterans, reservists, or military spouses—or people who just want to lend a hand towards supporting vets and their families through volunteer opportunities—to speak about their experiences and support one another. Its primary goal is to encourage the development and professional success of MoFo Vets lawyers and staff. Dave, an Air Force veteran who serves as chair for outreach and supports the firm’s Government Contracts and National Security Groups, thanked attorney career development manager, MoFo Vets member, and Navy spouse Christie Mizer for coordinating the panel discussion.
Matt and Reema, who currently serve as reservists, shared their experiences in the military and how those experiences impact their careers at MoFo. Stacey, who is a champion for veterans’ rights, discussed her experiences on several high-profile impact cases on behalf of veterans, one of which garnered recognition for the firm from Swords to Plowshares as Pro Bono Partner of the Year last year.
Dave: Stacey, would you mind telling us how you came to the firm, how long you’ve been here, and perhaps a brief overview of some of your veterans’ matters?
Stacey: Sure. Thanks, Dave. I’m a partner in the San Francisco office. Just this Saturday I celebrated my 15-year anniversary with MoFo, which is kind of amazing and hard to believe. I lead the firm’s global ethics and compliance practice. But my passion—and sometimes I describe it as moonlighting—is to be a veterans’ advocate. Since I started at the firm, I’ve been doing a lot of pro bono work for veterans, primarily impact cases. These cases that were designed to try to change the current system by addressing systemic issues. We have taken on these cases not only with the goal of achieving a legal victory, but also to raise awareness around some of the different ways that veterans’ rights were not being protected by the system.
Dave: Matt—just a quick note on Matt. As some of you know, he’s been recently promoted to major, so congratulations, Major. Matt, would you mind giving us a brief overview of your journey to MoFo and your service background?
Matt: I joined Boston’s Technology Transactions Group in July 2019 as a lateral associate. Prior to my legal career, I served five years of active duty in the Army as an intelligence officer. Over the course of those five years, I had a few assignments in various locations. My first was at Fort Riley, Kansas, with the First Infantry Division, where I served as a battalion staff officer, and my primary role was advising the commander on matters regarding intelligence and security. That also included my first deployment to Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014. My next assignment was in Germany for a couple years, where I was assigned to a theater intelligence brigade and served as an intelligence operations planner and branch chief of an intelligence analysis team as part of U.S. Army Europe. I joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 2017.
Dave: Matt, can you tell us about your continued service in and out of uniform?
Matt: What got me started was certainly—as stereotypical as it sounds—the desire to serve, which I know is very common among most folks who are in the military these days. It’s the great thing about having a volunteer force. Everyone to your right and left typically really wants to be there, and I didn’t necessarily come from a military family, but it was something I was always interested in from a very young age. Although I left active duty in 2017 to practice law, I didn’t want to walk away from the military entirely. So, I became a reservist, and fortunately have found that I am able to balance my military and civilian commitments. I absolutely love being able to continue to serve and would recommend it to everybody.
Dave: How does MoFo distinguish itself from other firms when dealing with your service obligation and time away from the firm?
Matt: At first I wasn’t sure how it all would work out being a reservist and also trying to practice law at the same time, but I can say that I’ve been extremely fortunate to have experienced fantastic support from my employers, who, for the most part, don’t have much direct experience or knowledge of the military. However, it was absolutely crystal clear from the beginning that I had the full support of the firm and all of my colleagues. I recognize my military obligations certainly cause uncertainty and extra work for others, but nevertheless there have been so many people here who have supported me, asking, “What can we do for you?”, and “How can we make this easy?” I’d say that’s really where MoFo as an organization distinguishes itself—it’s the people I work with. I don’t think you can quantify it, but there’s a significant weight that comes off your shoulders when you know you can focus on your military mission when you need to, and you can focus on your fellow Soldiers or Seamen or Airmen, while not having to worry about your regular full-time job at the same time.
Reema: Most of my career has been in government prior to MoFo, and in government it’s actually pretty easy to be a reservist because there’s just a ton of overlap. It’s definitely harder in the private sector to be a reservist than it is in government, but that’s not specific to MoFo. That’s going to be anywhere you go. It’s just different. What I will say is that we cannot do this without civilian support. We just can’t. I’m really appreciative that MoFo goes above and beyond and do everything they possibly can to support us.
Dave: Speaking of your individual practices, how has your work in the service influenced your practice at MoFo?
Matt: An Army career is like a “Big Law boot camp.” You come into the role of an attorney and it’s very demanding and fast-paced. There are complex issues that you need to continuously assess and solve that involve critical thinking. The Army’s approach is certainly very similar to that with how it approaches operations and tasks generally. It’s all based on working together as a team and using each other’s strengths to really come together with a solution.
Dave: There’s a teamwork aspect of things drilled into you. It’s a part of something bigger than just you. So Reema, has that been your experience, as well?
Reema: I echo everything Matt said, and I think the military really drills into you “one team, one fight”: an all-hands-on-deck sort of mantra. It’s been really helpful to look at things and approach problems as we’re all in this together. Since I’m in the National Security practice, there’s actually a lot of substantive overlap, which is also nice. I think the military just gives you a unique experience that you can bring to the table when you approach things, and that’s also been a great asset to have.
Dave: How has your practice at MoFo influenced your service?
Matt: For me, it definitely goes back to interacting with people and making sure you’re taking care of their concerns first, then managing tasks. I’ve learned new tricks here with different people I’ve worked with at MoFo. Of course, it’s not military-related, but rather in how they approach problems and create solutions. I can take these lessons back to my Army team, and I know they’ll benefit from that as well.
Reema: We have a lot in the Navy Reserves of what we call administrivia, or admin work. We do a lot. It’s an inordinate amount. To say it gives you a whole different level of appreciation for a law firm where there are people to support you doing that admin work would be an understatement.
Dave: I’d like to turn to Stacey to talk about the work we’ve been doing on the pro bono side on behalf of veterans. Stacey, can you speak more about the cases you’ve worked on?
Stacey: One significant case of note is the Edgewood Arsenal case. There was a group of soldiers who were subjected to chemical and biological weapons testing, primarily during the Cold War era, by our government during their service in the Army. One of the issues in the case was the fact that those individuals who had served as test participants were sworn to secrecy and told that they could never talk about what they had experienced or what they were exposed to, which not only impacted their ability to move through it in their own lives, but also impacted their ability to speak with their doctors and obtain adequate medical care for any conditions that were potentially caused by their exposure.
In addition, many of those test participants had no idea what they were exposed to (let alone the potential health-related consequences of those exposures) because numbers were used to explain the substances that they were given, and so again, their ability to obtain medical care and to establish a service-connected condition for purposes of VA benefits was really limited. Finally, the Army was not providing any medical care to test participants for the conditions that were caused by their exposures. There is an Army regulation that we believed did compel the Army to provide medical care for conditions that had arisen out of exposure, and thankfully the court agreed.
We were tremendously successful in the district court and then again at the appellate court, and I am very happy to say that, today, there are many veterans who were test participants who are now obtaining medical care from the Army as a result of the resolution of the Edgewood Arsenal case.
Dave: Wow. That’s incredible, Stacey. I know you have worked on other impact cases on behalf of veterans as well. Can you share more?
Stacey: Sure. Another substantial impact case that the firm took on was brought on behalf of service members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan who had PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, or other mental health conditions as a result of their service in the military. We had spoken with many service members and their family members and learned that there were significant issues with the ability of veterans to obtain timely medical care or service-related disability compensation for their mental health conditions. And sadly, this had led to an epidemic of veteran suicides. We brought a case against the VA for what we argued were unconstitutional and unreasonable delays in both the provision of medical care and in adjudicating claims for service-connected disability compensation.
While these impact cases are important, and can generate significant attention (media attention, congressional attention, and public awareness), there are also many other things we can do as a community to support veterans, both by supporting individual veterans in connection with their own claims, and by donating time and money to veterans organizations. MoFo has a long history, going back decades, of supporting veterans and veterans’ issues, and we are recognized as one of the foremost firms involved with veterans’ advocacy. It’s a really important part of our firm’s history and the legacy of Gordy Erspamer, the partner who hired me and originally got me involved with advocating on behalf of veterans.
I encourage you all to consider that, while not all of us have been able to serve our country by joining the military, there are meaningful things that we can do to serve the men and women that have served and are still serving our country.