U offices grant affordable legal aid to students

Sarah McKenzie

Trouble with a landlord, professor or friend can stress out any college student, but legal professionals on campus say the problem doesn’t have to turn into a matter of life or death.
Students have two places to turn to at the University if an issue becomes too heated to handle alone.
The Student Dispute Resolution Center, located on the third floor of Coffman Memorial Union, has three staff members trained to provide problem-solving advice.
If a student needs legal representation, the West Bank hosts the Student Legal Service office in Willey Hall with a staff of six attorneys.
Between the dispute center and the law office, more than 2,000 students utilize the free legal services annually.
“You don’t have to be in trouble to come and see us,” said Mark Karon, associate director of the Student Legal Service. “We help students with wills, rental agreements and also sponsor a mentor program for students interested in careers in law.”
Karon serves as president of the student division of the National Legal Aid Association. He said more than 300 colleges and universities throughout the country provide inexpensive legal advice.
The first legal consultation is free at the Student Legal Service office; fees charged if a case goes to court are minimal compared to those of an outside lawyer.
“The average hourly rate for an attorney in Minneapolis is $175 to $200,” Karon said. “We charge a very nominal amount.”
For a criminal case, the Student Legal Service typically charges a student $75. Civil cases that go to court usually cost $15.
Each attorney at the service handles an average of 300 to 400 cases per year. Karon said the office has been in existence since 1977, noting the students considered inexpensive legal consultation on campus a pressing need in the late ’70s.
“The undergraduates thought they may have been unfairly taken advantage of,” he said.
There are instances where the attorneys from the legal service office cannot represent University students.
If the student seeking services has a gripe with another student from the University, the lawyers cannot intervene. The same is true if the student files a suit against the University or an individual faculty member.
The office does not handle fee-generating cases, such as personal injury or medical malpractice lawsuits.
Opening students’ eyes to their legal rights is one of the office’s top priorities, Karon said.
“We try to educate from a preventative standpoint,” he said.
Workshops on the zero-tolerance policy for minors caught driving drunk, countless brochures on legal issues and the mentor program are informative measures the office provides.
“We try to appeal to the general University,” he said. The office has used the movies “My Cousin Vinnie” and “Kramer v. Kramer” as a springboard for discussion between local lawyers, judges and students.
The quarterly mentor program plans tours in the Hennepin County Government Center and State Supreme Court. Students also have the opportunity to watch actual court cases on trial.
If students have questions more related to academic policy issues, the Student Dispute Resolution Center is probably their best bet, said director Jan Morse.
“We cover concerns that don’t really have a basis in the law,” Morse said. Housing and policy questions often top the list of issues for which students seek consultation.
Morse said the staff for the center help students realize their wide range of options. “We use campus resources and precedents to help them choose a course of action,” she said.
Fallout from major policy changes crank up the amount of work for the dispute center. Morse said she predicts that the next few years will be very busy with the transition to semesters scheduled for the 1999-2000 academic year.
Both Morse and Karon advise students to address their problems right away, before they get caught up in the University’s bureaucratic hurdles.
“If you step off the track, it’s very easy to get lost quickly,” Morse said. “Trying to play clean-up is very difficult.”