Meet Our Alumni: Mariah Hanley
Capitalizing on education and quickly building expertise
At age 30, Spokane native Mariah Hanley (UW Law ’16) is already considered an expert for veterans law issues in Washington state. Hanley is an Assistant Attorney General at the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, where she manages the Office of Military and Veteran Legal Assistance (OMVLA). She started the job last December. In addition to providing training and support to attorneys serving veterans, service members, and their families in Washington, Hanley coordinates pro bono legal assistance and self-help resources for the military and veteran community, structures programs to meet unmet legal needs and conducts statewide outreach. She also manages the OMVLA advisory board, of which she was a founding member from its inception in 2017.
Looking at Mariah’s resume, you’d be right in wondering if she entered law school with a laser focus on providing military families and veterans with access to excellent legal counsel and adjacent services. It would make for a linear story, but that’s not how it happened. “I didn’t start law school with any knowledge around veterans affairs, and it wasn’t until an internship with the Northwest Justice Project (NJP) that I encountered this work—and really connected with it,” said Hanley.
As students are poised to begin their studies at UW Law’s William H. Gates Hall, this is an auspicious moment for Mariah to share a quick tip. “Reach out to anyone who has a legal job that interests you,” advises Hanley. “I must have gotten coffee with a dozen-plus attorneys the fall and winter quarters of my 1L year. I shadowed general counsel at Seattle Children’s Hospital. I met with a disability rights attorney practicing at a national level. UW Law is a huge network amplifier if you take advantage of the opportunities. A lot of these people I keep up with today.”
Hanley began practicing as an attorney at the age of 23. A Running Start student, Hanley completed two years of college while in high school, then finished her bachelor’s degree in political science in two years at Seattle University. But it was a junior high mock trial exercise that inspired Hanley to set her sights on becoming a lawyer, so she applied for law school and entered UW Law at age 20.
The summer after her 1L year Hanley worked as a law clerk for the Northwest Justice Project’s Veterans Project, where she advocated for veterans involved in the criminal justice system, working with 2013 UW Law grad Leo Flor. She enjoyed the variety and community found in the work and continued interning with Northwest Justice Project (NJP) throughout the remainder of her time at UW Law. Starting in September 2016, Hanley worked as an Equal Justice Works Fellow (sponsored by the Microsoft Corporation and Perkins Coie LLP) for the Northwest Justice Project (NJP), representing low-income women and veterans experiencing homelessness who had non-criminal legal problems affecting their health. Hanley created the Medical-Legal Partnership for Vets at Seattle’s VA Medical Center.
In 2018, Hanley became a staff attorney for NJP. Using a collaborative approach with the King County Veterans Program and other local agencies, Hanley advocated for low-income veterans in the areas of benefits, discharge upgrades and other issues. She successfully appealed a negative decision for disability compensation for a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting in a lump sum payment of $191,000. One of her favorite projects is the development of a veterans law clinic-externship hybrid. She developed an eight-week VA benefits module with readings and weekly trainings.
From Advisory Board Member to Assistant Attorney General in no easy steps
Involvement on the Office of Military and Veteran Legal Assistance (OMVLA) advisory board was useful in Hanley in her transition to the OMVLA manager. “I've been on the advisory board since OMVLA started in 2017,” said Hanley. “I had a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge about this project, and about this work, and was really excited to step into the project as the manager, having seen its inception and development over the last few years.”
Because Mariah has deep experience working with veterans issues, she’s able to focus her efforts on policy advocacy and integrating her office into the legal aid community. She has many ideas about what this program could become, and what can be done to improve access to justice for veterans, servicemembers and their families in Washington.
For starters, Hanley is doing outreach to get as many pro bono attorneys signed up for the program as possible—and law firms signed up for the law firm pro bono commitment, called the Vet Heroes program. “Providing veterans, service members, and their families with pro bono assistance is our core duty.” says Hanley. “We look forward to strengthening our pro bono program in 2024 and beyond.”
The difficult thing about being a resource provider is that community partners also need to know about it. “We host legal clinics to connect veterans, service members and their families with the help they need,” said Hanley. “It’s also a priority for me to ensure that our systems are accessible to everyone who may need our assistance. We have been re-writing our public-facing materials to make them easy to read and understand for everyone in the community. We recently relaunched our online intake form, for example.”
Considering that the average person reads at a sixth-grade level, the retooling of the intake form is an important step in providing access—and that’s truly what a lot of Mariah’s work is focused on.
What are the biggest unmet legal needs in the veterans community in Washington State? Hanley’s office recently undertook a large survey to help answer that question. Mind you, the office is already quite busy. As of this interview, OMVLA was on pace to take 150% more calls, year-to-date, than last year. “Public awareness creates more demand,” said Hanley. But that’s exactly why her office exists. She and her team work on issues catalyzed by COVID, during a time when the demographics include aging Vietnam veterans and veterans from the last 20+ years of conflict in the Middle East. Consumer and digitally deployed scams are everywhere. Housing affordability is a huge issue. The complexities of the situation don’t show signs of abating.
But she doesn’t do this in a vacuum. “I have a great team, I love my team,” said Hanley. “I've got a policy analyst and then I've got three AmeriCorps VISTA fellows right now; one helps with outreach, one helps with pro bono attorney recruitment, and one is developing data visualizations to help tell our story. Our policy analyst started about two weeks after I did, and our AmeriCorps VISTA fellows are also new to the team. We’ve had the opportunity to develop new ideas and processes and come up with things that have never been done before in our office.”
One of the ongoing challenges in providing access involves canvassing all of Washington. Hanley’s office may have one client—the state of Washington—but they have many community members in the vets and service members they serve across 39 counties. It is up to Hanley’s office to make sure that people who don’t live in population-dense counties can find the help they need, and she has done work in some of the smallest and remote communities in the state.
It combines the head and the heart
Luckily for her (not to mention her team or the community members her office helps), this is a job where her passion and intellect resoundingly intersect. “Working with veterans as a population means that you aren’t focusing on just one area of law, like housing,” said Hanley. She points out that there are many overlapping issues. A veteran might have an issue that involves VA benefits and family law, and you must understand both issues to figure out how to solve that puzzle.
“It’s also about building relationships with clients, many of whom have mental health issues or other disabilities,” said Hanley. “Building those relationships, helping people tell their story—that means a lot to me.” One thing that inspired Mariah to do this work is that she has cystic fibrosis, a disability that has affected her academic and professional careers. “It was part of what inspired me to start a Department of Veterans Affairs Medical-Legal Partnership just out of law school,” said Hanley. “I saw how helpful it could be to have the privilege of a legal education when trying to confront administrative issues like benefits denials. My own experiences in the healthcare system also gave me a better understanding of how the systems that are supposed to care for people can let patients down. I wanted to improve the experience for veterans and, more generally, for people with disabilities. My experience as a person with a disability has helped me develop some insight into what works and what doesn’t, and I’ve used that to be a better advocate for the veteran and military community.”
Hers is the sort of work in which you can never really rest on your laurels. The legal environment is too complicated, and things don’t remain the same. There have been significant changes to VA benefits law and Department of Defense policy since Hanley started this work, including an overhaul of the entire VA appeals system. “When I was directly representing veterans, which I no longer do in my current position, I enjoyed that challenge a lot,” said Hanley. “You must be constantly adjusting how you’re doing the work. Now I’m tacking those challenges at a systemic level.”
Now she plays the chess of it from another perspective, with a point of view she continues to inform through her curiosity and hard work. And it’s not lost on her that self-care is an important piece of the puzzle as well. “You’re dealing with a lot of secondary trauma and you need coping skills to do this work without it being at the expense of your own health,” said Hanley.
Mariah mentions that it’s especially important for newer attorneys to figure this out. Now, if only there was an alumna the UW Law community could turn to if they wanted mentorship in this direction.