How Student Legal Services Can Help
The Student Legal Services office is funded by student initiated fees through the University Park and Commonwealth Campus fee boards and is available to enrolled students who pay those fees. This includes students at University Park and Commonwealth Campus students at the following campuses: Abington, Altoona, Beaver, Behrend, Berks, Brandywine, DuBois, Fayette, Greater Allegheny, Great Valley, Harrisburg, Hazleton, Lehigh Valley, Mont Alto, New Kensington, Schuylkill, Scranton, Shenango, Wilkes-Barre, and York.
Types of Services
Student Legal Services was established in 2010 to protect the rights of students, provide students with access to the judicial system, and educate students about legal issues. The service was initially only available to University Park students, but was expanded in 2021 to include Commonwealth Campus students. The office is funded by student fee allocations, and all services are free to students who are enrolled and pay the Student Initiated Fee.
We provide referrals, consultations, or representation. The level of service we can provide depends on the facts and circumstances of the individual case.
We provide consultations on a wide variety of legal issues in both criminal and civil matters. All our attorneys are licensed in Pennsylvania and can only provide advice on Pennsylvania law.
In some situations, our office can only provide referrals to other attorneys or services. These include matters where there is a conflict of interest, where the issue falls outside the capability, qualifications, or experience of our attorneys, or where the matter would overwhelm our capacity and reduce the availability of services to a large number of students.
We offer an array of document preparation services. We can draft simple wills, powers of attorney and living wills, and we can help students complete paperwork such as expungement petitions.
Our attorneys represent University Park students in court in many types of criminal and civil matters in Centre County. Representation is not available outside of Centre County.
Because of this geographic limitation, we are typically unable to offer representation to Commonwealth Campus students. Commonwealth Campus students contribute proportionately less in student initiated fees due to the difference in level of representation available to them.
Before we can represent a student, we must enter into a written representation agreement that outlines the terms of our representation. Like all of our services, representation is free!
Notary services are free to current Penn State students, faculty, and staff. Appointments are required.
This service is only available in person at our University Park office.
For legal advice or the drafting of legal documents, please schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys.
There are also free notary services available in the HUB-Robeson Center. (These are also available by appointment only).
We offer free presentations to student groups or organizations on legal topics of interest including game-style presentations on landlord-tenant law, police encounters, and scams.
Presentations can be delivered in person or virtually.
Conflicts of Interest
We'd love to help everyone all the time, but we have to follow the ethics rules that are established by our profession. Generally, our ethics rules say that we can't represent someone if:
- We believe we can't fully advocate on behalf of an individual for any reason, or
- Our involvement in the case might hurt the interests of a client or former client, either because we're now taking a similar matter against them, or because we could use confidential information we received in the prior representation.
When we analyze conflicts, we have to treat all students who qualify for our services the same. That means that if we can't advise or represent all of the students involved in a given dispute under our ethics rules, we can only provide referral information to all of them.
We can't change it by assigning a different Student Legal Services attorney to each of two students in a dispute. If one attorney from our office has a conflict of interest, we all have a conflict of interest.
Only about 3 percent of our intakes are identified as conflicts of interest, but the conflict determination can mean that the individual student loses 100 percent of their options for free legal representation. For this reason, we make conflicts determinations carefully, while also working to develop alternative resources for students in conflicts situations.
- What happens when there is a conflict?
We run a conflicts check on every intake. If we identify a conflict, we'll do our best to get referral information to the affected student. We typically send it by email so we don't waste the student's time by making that student come in to an appointment to get the referral list.
Sometimes we aren't able to spot a conflict until the initial meeting. If that happens, we'll provide referral information when the conflict is identified.
- Do students have a right to know what caused the conflict?
Unfortunately, no. We are subject to strict rules about attorney client privilege, and sometimes those rules prohibit us from explaining the reason for the conflict.
- Can a student meet with an attorney after a conflict is identified?
Students are welcome to touch base by phone or email after a conflict is identified if they have questions, or if they want to provide additional information they think would prove helpful in our analysis of the conflict determination. A meeting can be useful if there are follow up questions regarding the referral information provided.
Usually a meeting is not helpful to a student after a conflict decision is made because:
- The attorney is not permitted to provide legal advice -- student often ask for 'information' or 'help' with the matter. We can't disguise legal advice as something else just by changing what we call it. If the student needs an attorney to be able to get the questions answered, the answers are likely legal advice.
- We won't debate or negotiate the conflict decision. It is critical that we all retain our law licenses to be able to continue to provide this service.
- Don't I have a right to use Student Legal Services because I pay the student fee?
Students are entitled to use our services to get help for their personal legal issues; however, students do not have the right to decide whether we provide referrals, advice or representation in any given case. The Student Legal Services office can't exist unless the attorneys make that decision.
We only assist students with their personal legal issues. We don't help students with their friend's legal issue or their family member's legal issue. We don't assist students as business owners. The entrepreneurship ecosystem at the University provides free legal assistance and other services for students who are launching businesses.
- What are some common areas of conflict of interest?
Cases against the University or its employees, acting in their professional capacity
It is easy to understand that we can't sue the University. This proscription is more broad than that though. For example, we will only provide referral information in:
- A student's dispute against a professor
- A student's employment dispute against the University
- A criminal action where the student is alleged to have damaged University property
On the other hand, if the other party works for the University, but the action is unrelated to their professional role, we typically can help. So if a student has an issue with the landlord, and the landlord works for the University, Student Legal Services can usually still help that student because the issue is entirely with the landlord acting in a private capacity, not in the scope of his or her employment with the University.
Most cases against other students
With so many students living so close together -- much of the conflict that occurs here is between students. We've worked hard to try to develop resources for students in this situation to have access to a free or affordable consultation with a private attorney.
We have to be equally available to all students, and we can't pick which student to help based on who is 'right' and who is 'wrong' or who is the alleged perpetrator and who is the alleged victim. All students deserve the same right to representation, and often that means we can't help either student.
There is a narrow exception for situations where we would not be obligated to represent the other student, such as where the student is acting in their capacity as a for-profit business owner.
Common student-student conflict situations include:
- roommate conflict
- theft of another student's property
- fights between students
- car accidents where both drivers are students
- one student defaults on a joint and several lease where another student is also a tenant
Professional conflicts can occur even when it may not seem like there is any actual conflict between the students. Here are a couple of examples:
- Furnishing/underage charges. We often get two students who are close friends where one was charged with furnishing, and the other with underage possession. This presents a conflict for us, even though the friends both want us to help them both. To give complete advice, we'd have to advise one student of an option that could hurt the interests of the other student. Even if both students agree they don't want to take any action that would harm the other, our ethics rules don't allow us to take that friendship into account -- our zealous representation of one student could harm the interests of the other. We can only provide them with referral information.
- Drafting a sublease agreement. One student wants to sublease an apartment from another. Both students want us to help draft a sublease contract. The students may have the same goal, but when they are on opposite sides of a contract, their legal interests are different. We can only provide them with referral information.
Cases where another student is involved in an adversarial way
Conflicts of interest often extend to situations where another student is involved in an adverse capacity to another student, even it they are not directly involved in the charge, lawsuit, or conflict.
Other Limits to Services
We can only help with matters for which we're qualified to give advice, or for which we have enough knowledge and information to provide competent advice.
We are not qualified to give advice or represent students in matters outside of Pennsylvania. All of the Student Legal Services attorneys are only licensed to practice in Pennsylvania. We do not provide representation outside of Centre County.
There are areas of the law that require special qualifications, or in which we have no experience, or which were set out as areas in which we are not permitted to practice when Student Legal Services was formed. These include, but are not limited to:
- Taxes (Penn State VITA offers free tax preparation assistance for students)
- Patent (Penn State Law offers a free Intellectual Property Clinic)
- Copyright (Penn State Law offers a free Arts, Sports and Entertainment Clinic, which provides some copyright assistance)
- Felony criminal charges
- Contested divorce or custody
- Class action lawsuits
- Medical malpractice or personal injury
We are required to be available to the largest possible number of students and are not able to take a case that will disproportionately use our time for a single student, at the expense of many others. This sometimes means we won't take entire categories of cases--such as felony criminal charges, medical malpractice, and personal injury cases. Sometimes it means we'll take certain cases, but only on a limited basis, such as divorce cases so long as they are uncontested, but not if they become contested; or first-offense misdemeanors through the ARD process, but not if ARD is revoked.