University student legal services can be a cost-effective option for students seeking guidance and representation for routine legal matters such as traffic tickets, criminal defense, landlord-tenant disputes, employment issues and more. These university-operated services often “pool” the per-semester fees they collect from students broadly to fund the representation for the students they ultimately represent. Therefore it is a great value for students who end up needing the service. These offices are often staffed by attorneys and/or law students supervised by licensed attorneys. This service can be very beneficial, especially to students who do not have the means to hire private attorneys.
However, it is very important for college students to recognize the limitations of student legal services and the potential conflicts of interest that may arise. This happens when the opposing party in your matter is the university itself, an employee of the university, or a fellow student.
1. University legal services cannot assist you when the opposing party is the university itself.
First and foremost, university legal services cannot (and should not) assist you when the matter involves the university. It is very common for students to find themselves involved in proceedings, hearings or other disputes with their own universities. This could be in the form of academic misconduct or code of conduct hearings, university housing issues, in-state residency appeals for out-of-state students, Title IX hearings, grade appeals or even academic dismissals.
A conflict of interest arises when an organization has multiple interests that could potentially compromise its ability to fulfill the obligations impartially. When it comes to student legal services, the potential for a conflict of interest arises from the fact that these services are typically funded and/or operated by the university itself. The university’s primary mission is to protect its own interests, which does not align with the interests of a student in a legal dispute against the university. Therefore, a conflict of interest exists in providing representation to a student when the opposing party is the university — or an employee of the university such as a professor or teaching assistant. To be sure, most legal services offices clearly inform students that they cannot represent them when the university or university employee is a party to the dispute. It is better for the student to seek private counsel.
2. University legal services may not be able to assist you when the opposing party is another enrolled student.
Legal matters also occur frequently for students against other students enrolled at the university. These may occur in the form of personal injury matters, car accidents, contract disputes, intellectual property disputes, roommate disputes, sexual assault claims and others.
In cases such as this, the student legal services office will likely have a conflict of interest, which is especially true if the opposing student has access to the same representation from the student legal services office. If the student legal services office does offer representation to you, be sure to ask your apoointed attorney questions about any existing conflicts — or conflicts that may arise as the matter progresses. Students should proceed very cautiously in using student legal services in these situations, to be sure that no conflict exists with the opposing student.
3. Always seek independent legal advice.
If you are facing a legal issue against your university or against a university employee, you should absolutely consult with a private attorney before taking an action that would jeopardize your rights or ability to challenge a decision later. You should also exercise caution when the matter involves another student at the university. When seeking private counsel, be sure to seek a law firm with experience in education law and student rights, such as Abdnour Weiker, LLP.