February 24, 2003

Program offers free legal advice to community

By Eric Rangus erangus@emory.edu

What exactly can an Emory law student say to someone arrested for public urination even though he claimed he had a kidney infection and couldn’t help it?

Three times.

Second-year law student David Kaufman paused briefly to consider his answer.
“Good luck, buddy.”

Okay, so that’s not exactly a typical case heard by Student Legal Services, a program run out of the law school that provides free legal advice to members of the Emory community. But it does show that even in the oddest—and sometimes most embarrassing—circumstance, people on campus are available to help.

“Usually there are other mitigating circumstances,” said Kaufman, who, of course, was kidding about the case above. A second-year law student, Kaufman is codirector of the program.

“It’s not so much that people feel they were treated poorly,” he continued. “They realize that they made a silly decision, and they need to know what they have to do when they show up in court. Very few people know what they are entitled to or how to handle the legal system.”

While the name may imply that only Emory students are eligible to use Student Legal Services, that isn’t the case. The law school provides the service, but anyone in the Emory community may utilize it. Students do make up a majority of clients, but Emory faculty and an increasing number of staff have come in as well.

Emory staff, in particular, Kaufman said, can greatly benefit from the program. Faculty, he said, often have the financial resources to hire attorneys, and in many cases parents step up to help out students with legal issues.

Staff members, though, often fall in between. They might be able to afford attorneys, but free legal advice might be preferable in some situations.

Student Legal Services, which has been in existence for more than 30 years, handles a wide range of cases. Among students, roommate disputes or landlord/ tenant problems are most common. For staff, property questions, divorce cases and people curious about the legal ramifications of starting their own business are just a few examples.

Caseworkers also hear more serious problems, such as DUIs. One woman needed a writ of habeas corpus for her jailed son and had no idea what her options were.

To meet with a caseworker, all that is required is a valid Emory ID. The only type of case Student Legal Services will turn down is one where the opposing party also is a member of the Emory community (such as a roommate dispute or if someone wants to sue an Emory department).

Utilizing Student Legal Services is easy. Clients are taken on a first-come-first-served basis; no appointment is necessary. First they will meet with a law student caseworker who will listen to their problem and take notes. Depending on the case, consultations can last from a minute or two up to an hour.

The caseworker discusses the case with staff attorney Cliff Weiss, who then makes an appointment with both the client and the caseworker to explore legal options.

Since they are law students and not members of the bar, caseworkers cannot dispense legal advice—that’s Weiss’ responsibility—but they can express their opinions to Weiss about a client’s options. Often they perform research on similar cases and are involved throughout the entire consultation process.

“This is a great learning opportunity,” said Weiss (’87C, ’90L), an attorney with the firm Robin and Weiss, who has worked with Student Legal Services since 1991. He also has taught legal research and writing and advocacy classes in the law school. “Plus it’s an opportunity for them to give back to the community.”

Student Legal Services carries 68 caseworkers, all of whom are volunteers—none are paid or receive class credit. The personal growth and client experience is payment enough, said Veronica Finkelstein, who also is codirector.

“I like to join every organization I can find, and this is one that really does things and is active,” said Finkelstein, a second-year law student.

“It’s beneficial for all of us, especially the first-year students, to be able to take what we learn in class and apply it to real-world situations,” Kaufman said.

“When you read cases, you don’t see the whole picture, but you get a good experience talking to a person, getting all the details,” Finkelstein said. “When people tell you their stories, they don’t tell it in a way you would read it in a case.

The office is located in the Law School Annex at 1740 N. Decatur Road behind Gambrell Hall, next to the Lowergate Parking Deck. A large blue advertising banner Finkelstein created (and is very proud of) decorates the trailer’s front. Clients are seen by caseworkers Mondays–Wednesdays, from 3–7 p.m. All cases are confidential. A minimum of two caseworkers are on call during office hours.

Since reopening earlier this month, caseworkers have seen 20–30 clients a week. The office is open for 10 weeks each semester. For more information, call 404-727-6516.






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