The Graduate Student Assembly has unveiled a new legal aid program to address student concerns about a lack of legal services offered by the University.
The initiative, which was launched with the help of University General Counsel Dorothy Robinson, allows graduate and professional school students to meet with a member of the New Haven County Bar Association for free one-on-one advice during monthly “Ask-a-Lawyer” sessions — the first of which will be held today. Students can also consult a newly compiled list of local attorneys who will offer free private consultation and reduced service fees. GSA President Lauren Tilton GRD ’16 said the organization decided to work with administrators to implement the new program after students faced several specific occurrences in which they would have benefited from legal advice.
“Students had come to GSA representatives asking about legal services and past incidences have highlighted the lack of services,” Tilton said.
Lucas Thompson GRD ’13, a member of the GSA who worked on the project, said the program aims to make representation more affordable to students, particularly in the legal matters that most directly affect graduate students — including those related to housing, intellectual property, safety and insurance. The GSA became aware that students did not have enough access to legal representation after a GSA member was injured by an uninsured driver while riding her bike but did not have easily available legal resources, he said.
When designing the program, Thompson said the GSA consulted with peer institutions who already have established legal services programs and considered other approaches to legal aid, such as hiring in-house counsel. But the GSA and Robinson decided that compiling a list of lawyers offering discounted services and hosting free sessions would be the most cost-effective way to address the issue. Robinson said the General Counsel’s Office used information on students’ primary topics of concern provided by the GSA to decide the type of lawyers to contact and built on existing relationships with outside firms to compile the list.
“Everyone you talk to says they could use [legal services] or know someone who could,” Thompson said. “We really see this as the first step to fixing a big problem, but by no means is it fixed.”
Robert Harper-Mangels, assistant dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, maintains the list of participating lawyers and will provide students with a copy if they request assistance. Five students have already approached him about the program this week, and two asked him for the referral list, he said.
Both Thompson and Tilton said if the program is successful, they would consider expanding it to include in-house counsel, but Robinson said she does not think that the University will offer direct legal service to students.
Because the program is still in its early stages, Harper-Mangels said he and the GSA will track its progress throughout the year, adding that he will not know whether the program will expand until he can assess student response.
“I think we’re all looking at this as an opportunity to be educated, to figure out what the need is and how significant it is,” Harper-Mangels said. “We hope to come to the end of the year with some hard data and figure out what needs to be done.”
Sung-Ho Hwang — president of the New Haven County Bar Association who helped the GSA find lawyers for the program and is also on the list himself — said he thinks it is important for students to have reasonably priced representation because many students cannot make much money while enrolled in school. He added that he plans to adjust his fee based on a student’s need and demonstrated ability to pay.
For the past two decades, Princeton has compiled a similar list of local lawyers available to students if they need legal assistance, said Peter McDonough, Princeton’s general counsel. But Princeton has not negotiated with lawyers to reduce legal fees, he said.
Brown has an in-house lawyer for both undergraduates and graduate students, and Harvard offers free legal consultation through the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, which is staffed by second- and third-year Harvard Law School students.
All 10 graduate students interviewed said they think increased legal services would be beneficial, though six said they were unaware a new program had been created.
Anthony Lollo GRD ’17 said he does not know if he will use the new service himself, but he thinks graduate students will take advantage of increased access to free or reduced-fee consultation.
“No one wants to pay $100 to ask a simple question,” Lollo said.
Derek Ng GRD ’13 said he thinks the “Ask-a-Lawyer” sessions could help international students familiarize themselves with the American legal code — an important skill to have if a legal matter arises during their time at Yale.
The GSA first proposed a legal aid program to University President Richard Levin in September 2011.