During the Student Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, college-age kids across the country and at Indiana University came together to support the civil rights movement, protest the Vietnam War, lobby for the voting age to be lowered to 18 and fight massive hikes in tuition.
Out of this organization and advocacy came an acute focus on rights and representation for students. The students’ experiences showed them the benefits of having an attorney available to help with criminal issues from protesting, financial affairs and more. So they lobbied IU Student Government and Union Board to establish an office of Student Legal Services, and the IU Board of Trustees approved their proposal. Fifty years ago this month, the office officially opened.
As our country and the world enter another tumultuous time – not unlike that of the late ’60s and early ’70s – Student Legal Services continues to provide IU students with legal counsel and representation for issues big and small. And since roughly $9 of each student’s activities fees go to Student Legal Services, the counsel and representation are provided at no additional cost.
This allows the four full-time attorneys and roughly 20 legal interns on staff to give each student’s case the full attention it deserves, according to Student Legal Services director Stacee Williams.
“Not only can we help students with issues that private attorneys may not take on, but we also have the other resources of the university and the Division of Students Affairs – like CAPS, MoneySmarts and the Crimson Cupboard – to help support students in need,” Williams said. “We also understand student issues better. And beyond doing the paperwork, we educate students about the implications for their futures for things like job or graduate school applications.”
The office handles a wide range of cases, including tenant/landlord disputes, criminal offenses, traffic violations and name changes. Last month, Student Legal Services settled a case in federal court on behalf of a student whose landlord tried to charge fees for the student’s service animal. Cases remain open until they are resolved through settlement or trial, in some cases extending past the time a student client graduates.
The office also serves a high volume of international students; about a quarter of its clients come from this population. Though Student Legal Services had to disband its immigration services a few years ago, the office still provides important legal services to international students. This includes making them aware of immigration consequences for criminal offenses, providing support with leasing contracts, and education on traffic laws.
Beyond serving students who are looking for legal counsel, Student Legal Services has also been providing important, practical experience for Maurer School of Law students for the past 50 years. Interns, under the supervision of the office’s full-time attorneys, meet with clients, manage cases and, upon certification, can actually appear in court and argue cases on behalf of their clients.
This type of experience is nearly impossible to get in any other internship, according to Steven Clark, an IU law and Student Legal Services alum. Clark – who is now director of operations and general counsel for Nelson Group Enterprises, a subcontractor dealing with insulation in construction – said that interning at Student Legal Services gave him the opportunity to understand what it’s like to be a general practitioner and help him decide whether he’d rather be a litigator or work in a corporate setting.
Current intern and third-year Maurer School student Brian Hudson agreed that working at Student Legal Services can inform future career choices. Before his internship, Hudson thought he would work as a legal librarian or as in-house counsel after school, but now he is more open to doing client-facing work.
Both Clark and Hudson said that while the work they did on behalf of student clients was not always dramatic or complicated, it was some of the most rewarding.
“To be able to go into a courtroom and make an argument on behalf of a fellow student who doesn’t have a lot of financial resources and possibly help them capture money back really meant something,” Clark said. “Some of those cases stick with me a little more than even some very large, complex, multimillion-dollar contracts I’ve worked on.”
“I’ve remarkably enjoyed some of the less dramatic cases I’ve worked on and really felt gratified by some of the more mundane legal work,” Hudson said. “Working on the sort of the thing that people wouldn’t maybe wouldn’t hire a lawyer for, but having legal counsel for is highly beneficial, can be just as important as arguing and having a victory in court.”
Williams said one of the biggest misconceptions about Student Legal Services is that it is only meant for students who are in legal trouble.
“Sometimes students don’t realize that when you are fending for yourself or living off campus for the first time, legal counsel can be very helpful,” Williams said. “We are here to provide information and support to every IU Bloomington student, regardless of their situation.”