Jim Carlsen ’81 J.D. had practiced law in a variety of settings, from working in a large firm to serving as in-house corporate counsel. Although he greatly enjoyed his career, the driving force behind the places he worked was always the bottom line.
“In large firms and corporations,” Carlsen says, “you frequently take money from people with a lot of money and give it to other people with a lot of money.”
Though grateful for the many opportunities his employers had provided to hone his skills, after Carlsen retired he was eager for the chance to make more of a difference.
A volunteer opening with The Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program (TVC) provided just the opportunity for Carlsen—a veteran himself who had served in a variety of legal roles for the U.S. Marine Corps—bringing him out of retirement and into an encore career where he could make an impact.
Based in Washington, D.C., TVC recruits and trains attorneys to represent veterans or their family members who have filed appeals at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Carlsen found himself spending an increasing amount of time volunteering with the organization as a senior fellow, and when the executive director resigned in March 2019, he accepted an offer to serve in that role.
As part of his work with TVC, Carlsen helped create a program that's now one of the two primary services the organization offers—the Discharge Upgrade Program.
“Increasing numbers of service members have received bad discharges based on mental health-related issues,” Carlsen says. “These mental health issues, many of them trauma-induced, can lead to behavioral problems that result in service members receiving other-than-honorable discharge. The consequence being that they are not considered to be veterans, even if they served in combat, and they receive no benefits from the Veterans Administration.”
Recognizing that a significant percentage of these cases stem from a service-related injury, Carlsen realized TVC could help. The Discharge Upgrade Program specifically represents veterans who have other-than-honorable discharges connected to traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, or military sexual assault.
“We talk to the individuals, we gather their data, we put a case together, and we go to the discharge review boards and get the discharges upgraded to either general or honorable discharge,” Carlsen says.
The result? Clients can receive crucial VA benefits.
“We have had individuals who were homeless and were granted discharge upgrades—with aid from the VA, they are back as functioning citizens,” Carlsen says. “It’s life-changing for these people.”
TVC takes on about 1,400 discharge reviews a year with a high success rate, he says. Not only does the program improve quality of life, but it also restores self-esteem by returning to the former service members the duly earned title of “veteran,” with all the rights and privileges that entails.
Though TVC works with far fewer resources than the multi-billion-dollar corporation where Carlsen worked previously, he says the organization isn’t short on volunteer help. In the 26 years it’s been running, TVC has trained and mentored more than 4,300 attorneys nationwide. Like Carlsen, they take on these pro bono cases because it is clear that the work makes a difference in people’s lives—“legal work with real consequence,” as Carlsen puts it.
“There are a number of folks who really want to help out,” he says, “and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for volunteering.”
And Carlsen is thrilled to be a part of the effort. It’s a fitting capstone to a career that began in 1975, when he joined the Marines Corps as an infantry officer. Carlsen later served as chief defense counsel for the 2nd Marine Division, senior trial counsel for the main island of Japan, and as the senior Marine defense counsel before the U.S. military appellate courts before he transitioned to work in the private sector.
“It’s just tremendously rewarding,” Carlsen says. “I’ve gotten to do some very interesting things on a legal front, but this is one of the most satisfying jobs I’ve had.”