As one of several services offered by the USF Student Government, Legal Aid may be one of the organization’s best-kept secrets.
Legal Aid is a service that gives students with legal problems an opportunity to get free advice from practicing attorneys.
Different lawyers come in during the week for a two-hour block each, allowing students to sign up for 15-minute appointments. Most times, an appointment can be set up within a few days.
Appointments are scheduled for three days a week. Program officials said about 35 students schedule appointments per week. Student Information Services sponsors the Legal Aid program.
Gina DeVecchio, who works for Student Information Services, said the program deals with all kinds of cases, from business to criminal.
“There’s a girl who called the other day, and she wants advice because she’s being accused of stalking someone,” DeVecchio said.
Another student needed help because a traffic ticket had caused a warrant to be issued for his arrest.
During a session with an attorney, a student can take the first step toward legal action, be it filing a lawsuit, beginning a divorce or finding out what constitutes “fair use” before posting multimedia to a Web site – as long as the situation isn’t related to USF.
Advisement on problems with the university, such as issues with faculty and school policy, is given by the student advocate, another service of the Student Government.
“(Legal Aid) is a starting point,” said Jorge Chanquin, another employee of Student Information Services.
Chanquin said Legal Aid volunteers don’t always assist students through the entire process, but they’re willing to discuss different options and make suggestions. If the initial session doesn’t answer all of a student’s questions, the volunteering attorney may offer to take on the case or refer them to another lawyer with experience in the appropriate area. However, most get what they need from the first appointment, according to Chanquin.
Because the content of each appointment is protected by strict attorney-client privilege, students need not be concerned with how a legal problem will affect their standing at school. All information exchanged is confidential.
The program attracts volunteers throughout the bay area, including alumni of USF who are lawyers. Every year, letters are sent to lawyers graduating from USF asking if they’d like to donate time to the Legal Aid program. Other Tampa attorneys volunteer to get exposure for their firms and help the community.
Nilesh Patel, a Tampa attorney in real estate contracts and transactional work, became involved with the program through two other attorneys he shared office space with, David Rexrode and Bill Wiggins, who were already volunteers.
When he started volunteering for Legal Aid, Patel said it was a rewarding cause.
“We try to just provide assistance to students with all kinds of different issues and guide them in the best way possible,” Patel said.
While students are glad they have access to the service, others aren’t aware it exists.
David Schaffter, a senior seeking his second degree, said he had never heard of it.
“It seems to me that they should advertise it more,” Schaffter said.
One student said he found out about the service when he saw the sign on the third floor of the Marshall Center, where the office is located.
The staff of Student Information Services said Legal Aid has been in place for more than a decade.
Appointments are scheduled in Room 254 of the Marshall Center or by dialing 974-5024. Legal Aid is only available to USF students.