While having a legal issue can result in hundreds of dollars in lawyer fees just to have an initial conversation with an attorney, Student Government (SG) offers the student body 15 minutes of free legal aid once a month from a volunteer attorney.
John Mulvihill is an attorney for Corless Barfield Trial Group LLC and specializes in personal injury cases. However, he has volunteered to assist USF students with legal questions since 2013.
Although he provides this service for students, Mulvihill is not employed by or associated with USF in any capacity.
About seven years ago, Mulvihill was asked by SG if he would be interested in providing answers to legal questions the students at USF had.
SG got the idea out of seeing a general need for students to have access to free legal aid, according to Jennifer Bielen, the assistant director of the SG advising office.
“A lot of students were contacting us about legal advice and we determined there was a need,” Bielen said. “As staff we can utilize some of the free aid from Bay Area Legal Services, and if there is a need for staff then there is a need for students as well.”
Because of this need expressed by students, Mulvihill was coming to campus once a month on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“On average, we probably fill up half of the spots every Friday, and some Fridays all the spots are full,” Bielen said. “We get about four to eight students usually.”
The attorney said he is able to speak with all members of the USF student body, even international students.
“I think it is extremely helpful when I get phone calls from international students because they may not have the same level of awareness of those who grew up in the [U.S] and it can relieve some of the stress and anxiety they are having,” Mulvihill said.
When campus was open, students would go through SG to make an appointment with Mulvihill.
“Students would get in touch with SG and find out what time they wanted to meet with me,” Mulvihill said. “They would schedule a time to meet with me in 15-minute blocks, but I always told SG if there was a scheduling conflict, students could call me or email me and I would get back in touch with them.”
Even though campus is closed, Mulvihill still is volunteering his time to speak with students in need, but because in-person contact is limited, all legal aid is done with Mulvihill over the phone or email and has a flexible schedule that means consultations can be other days than Fridays.
Students now do not have to go through SG to make an appointment.
“Everything is done via email,” Mulvihill said. “I write them back and see if they would like to do the consultation via email or phone. Some people do call my office directly and someone will take a message, and I will call them back and talk to them then or schedule a consultation.”
While 15 minutes may seem like not enough time, Mulvihill said he feels it is appropriate.
“The amount of time it takes depends on the situation,” Mulvihill said. “Some consultations take five minutes and then there are some that take 30 minutes, but I would say 15 minutes is a sufficient amount of time.”
If students need to go over time, Mulvihill said he does not mind.
“I don’t limit the amount of time I spend with students,” Mulvihill said. “If it takes 20 emails going back with them I am happy to do that, but I will not tell someone times up after 15 minutes.”
Not every issue presented to Mulvihill is able to be fully resolved by him, but he said he is at least able to help students get on the right track when they come speak to him and he often refers students to other places that can help them for a minimal fee.
“Most are problems with landlords or leases, so I get them in contact with someone who can help with that,” he said. “ I also educate them on what they should have with them when they have this meeting, like documentation.”
Mulvihill said he refers students to places with lower charges to speak to an attorney, and said he thinks that utilizing his free service is great for students considering how much attorneys charge usually just for a consultation.
“Generally, a comfortable number to charge is $250 to $500 an hour depending on the lawyer’s education and specialty, but some attorneys do free consultations and others do flat fees,” Mullvihill said.
One of the more common places Mulvihill sends students is the Hillsborough County Bar Association.
“They have a referral service for attorneys who specialize in all types of law and these attorneys will charge at most $35 for a consultation,” Mulvihill said.
Bielen said that the rate for speaking to an attorney was part of why SG saw a need for the service.
“A consultation is charged right off the bat,” she said. “If you go to an attorney, they will charge you the minute you start a conversation with them.”
The only time Mulvihill will charge a student, he said, is if they were to have a personal injury case in which they want him to handle and represent them.
At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement protests several weeks ago, Bielen told Mulvihill to expect a greater influx of emails from students.
But Mulvihill said even though he has had more students reach out to him since the university went remote, he has not seen an increase in questions from those involved in the movement.
“I had a few students reach out to me in regards to issues resulting from the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests that have happened, but no noted increase,” Mulvihill said.
USF is the only college he provides free legal aid to.
“I love doing this and it is just as rewarding for me as it is helpful for the students,” Mulvihill said.
Mulvihill said he finds offering free and confidential legal aid to students helpful.
“I think this is an awesome service,” he said. “I wish I had this when I was in college because you run into silly things in college and they can be legal issues and you’re nervous to call because of the money and things can seem monumental in your mind, but then you sit down and talk to someone and it relieves a lot of stress. It is a really good service for college students.”
Issam Halabi, a senior majoring in information technology, said he never knew about the service until recently, but wishes he had known of it sooner.
“I definitely would have used this service,” Halabi said. “As a young professional there are many questions that arose throughout my academic career or in my personal life. Just like how with any serious medical concern I go to the clinic instead of WebMD. I’d prefer a trained professional over an internet search.”
Other students also said they would use the service if needed.
Jessica Thomlinson, a senior majoring in criminology, said she had not known of the service either, and while she doesn’t have a need at the present time, she could see using it in the future.
“I will probably use it in the future,” Thomlinson said. “I believe that 15 minutes of free legal aid is useful to the student body, and I think if we were given information in our student email about legal aid more students would use it.”
The attorney welcomes all students to reach out to him and use this service and assures there is no issue too small to discuss with students, according to Mulvihill.
“Things may seem minor to me because of complex issues in my job, but they are not minor to the person calling, and I want to give them the same time and attention as a paying client,” Mulvihill said.