George Mason University
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George Mason University

More Than a Degree: Mason Law Student Wins Big for a Military Family in Need

September 25, 2014

By Buzz McClain

Call it a win-win, except, of course, for the contractor who had to pony up $17,500 in reimbursement and punitive damages to a homeowner thanks to a George Mason University law student.

J. Justin Collins

J. Justin Collins

The two winners were the homeowner and the law student, J. Justin Collins, who said his experience as counsel provided to the homeowner by George Mason’s Clinic for Legal Assistance to Servicemembers and Veterans was “irreplaceable.” The clinic, which makes law students available to military personnel at no charge, provided Collins with a learning experience that he says will stay with him long into his legal career.

“There’s no other way you can gain that kind of experience in a classroom setting,” Collins says. “You have all the support resources of the clinic, support from the supervising attorneys, and you are independent in developing the case but someone is by your side to help.”

Collins is from Sarasota, Fla., and came to Mason “because I knew I wanted to do something in public service,” and Mason Law’s Arlington, Va., proximity to Washington, D.C., was compelling. Little did he know he would be handling a significant case for a military family who desperately needed help. The homeowner’s Army sergeant husband was stationed in Georgia when she hired a Fairfax contractor to do plumbing.

“The contractor was not properly licensed and certified to do the work, and it turns out he messed it up because he didn’t have the right certification,” says Collins.

Mason law professor Laurie Neff meets with  students to discuss cases they are working on through the Law Clinic for Service Members. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Mason law professor Laurie Neff meets with students to discuss cases they are working on through the Clinic for Legal Assistance to Servicemembers and Veterans. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Collins handled the case from the inception, working with clinic director and professor Laurie Neff and a supervising attorney. The preparation was typical for what a lawyer would do in representing a plaintiff in a dispute of this nature, and the nervousness Collins admits he felt on the day of the trial might have been compounded by the idea that the money and the distance between the husband and wife created “a real hardship on a military family.” The verdict was on Collins’ shoulders.

Not only did Collins win the $17,500 judgment, he also won the praise of the judge. “The judge complimented Justin and said he would not have known he was a student,” says Neff. “And that’s in Fairfax County, one of the biggest jurisdictions in the country, and they see really good lawyers all the time.”

The amount of the settlement, Neff says, “in the realm of what we do, it’s a big win. And to have a student do it is particularly exciting.”

The clinic, she says, “trains our law students in ways they otherwise wouldn’t receive training.”

As it happens, Collins is the son of an Air Force airman and is on his way into the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. “I was brought up to appreciate and respect military service and what that means,” he says. This case cements his intentions of public service. “These are the kinds of issues I want to focus on.”

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