University attorneys provide free legal aid to students

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It is the busy season for Sylvia Holmes in the Legal Services for Students center — and that is how she likes it.

Holmes, a part-time attorney at the center, said appointments are booked for two weeks. Located on the Student Services Building’s fourth floor, the center offers free legal services, including representation, and advice for any UT student involved in almost any civil or criminal case. Last year, the office saw 1,404 students.

Holmes said one of the first things she does when she sees a student is calm him or her down. Normally, she says she sees students who are terrified with white knuckles. Holmes said since it is the beginning of the year, she advises many students regarding landlord and tenant disputes, underage drinking and traffic tickets.

“Getting a regular speeding ticket is the most frightening experience some of these students have ever gone through,” Holmes said. “These are students who have never been in trouble for any reason. To be accused of any crime is scary.”

Twenty-four percent of students the center sees are graduate students, 39 percent are seniors and nine percent are freshmen. Holmes said many students will spend their first few years at UT unaware of the free services they offer, so they tend to see more upperclassmen.

Although the center has shrunk recently from four full-time attorneys to two full-time attorneys and one part-time attorney, Holmes said they still manage to see a lot of students.

Holmes said the center sees a good portion of international students because they are unfamiliar with the U.S. legal system. Last year, nine percent of the students the center saw were international.

“Texas has done a good job as painting themselves as ‘tough on crime,’” Holmes said. “And that image scares the hell out of a lot of our students.”

After calming students down, Holmes said she educates students on what might happen with their case. She said this is her favorite part of the job.

“Not only do I explain how to handle the situation, but I tell students what do to do in the future,” Holmes said. “I always like when a student can go and argue a case from the right position as opposed to an emotional side.”

Every student who enters the office is given a handbook that provides answers to frequently asked questions. Holmes said she also prints out flowcharts that explain the legal process to students.

“Laws don’t change very often in Texas, so this is probably a good handbook to have for the next five years,” Holmes said, adding that the handbook is also available online.

Holmes said in some instances she will advise students to just pay their fines via mail, for example a parking ticket. In other instances, she will advise students to go down to the court and ask for a decreased fee.

Holmes said explaining they are students and that they visited the center will earn respect from judges.

Holmes said the center is open to reading and reviewing leasing contracts before students sign. Whenever students have disagreements with their landlords, Holmes said she tells students their first step is to send a mailed letter of compliant. If that letter is ignored, she says students can start pursuing a lawsuit.

“We see some landlords who, in my opinion, just should not be landlords,” Holmes said. “We get some landlords who are just flat out wrong and they just lie.”

UT alumnus Benjamin Wagman said while attending the University he had trouble getting his security deposit back from his landlord and called the center. Although Wagman did not follow up with his claim, he said the center’s advice was helpful.

“I had no idea what to do,” Wagman said. “If you don’t know how the legal system works, just five minutes of advice can save you tons of time and money.”

Students who need to seek legal counsel can schedule an appointment either online, over the phone or in person in room 4.104 of the Student Services Building. Even when the center is booked, Holmes said the center is open to emergencies.

Printed on Monday, October 1, 2012 as: Legal center offers advice, opens doors for students