Legally bound

At the University, if you fight the law, the law just might win -- in your favor.

Ted Hogshire, who is currently a Charlottesville circuit court judge, served as the first attorney for Student Legal Services when it was started in 1972. Hogshire was selected by a hiring committee, which included Larry Sabato and Kenneth Elzinga, both of whom were University students at the time and are now professors.

Hogshire said the program was started mainly because students were experiencing a large number of legal problems, especially landlord-tenant and traffic conflicts. Also, at the time, the cost of legal services in Charlottesville was steadily increasing, and there was an overall movement around the country to set up legal services for large groups of clients who couldn't obtain legal aid.

"I believe the program was modeled after similar programs at other universities," Hogshire said in an e-mail correspondence.

The organization offers its legal services through one attorney, currently Lester Wilson.

Wilson has practiced law for 33 years in a variety of capacities: as a prosecutor, defense attorney and in a civil practice. Wilson consults with students, and if they need to appear in court to resolve civil or criminal matters. He represents them in the Albemarle county court system.

"For students, the great value in Student Legal Services is having someone close at hand whom they can have confidence in and who can give advice," Wilson said.

The accessibility of Student Legal Services also makes it valuable to students, many of whom are far from home and aren't familiar with the law services in Charlottesville.

"There are a lot of good lawyers in Charlottesville for students to see, but they're all downtown and pretty expensive," Wilson said.

A consultation with Wilson at Student Legal Services is free, but there is a small fee for legal representation in court. The fee is set by a board comprised of six Student Council members and five University administrators or faculty members, one of whom is both an adjunct law professor at Darden School and a public defender in downtown Charlottesville.

According to Wilson, the most common problems that students bring to Student Legal Services are landlord-tenant conflicts, criminal acts and consumer matters. Wilson said students seek out Student Legal Services for more peripheral reasons, too, such as a computer company's failure to abide by its warranty when a computer breaks down.

"Our main cases, by far the largest volume, are landlord cases and criminal and traffic matters," Wilson said.

Wilson said the number of criminal cases brought before Student Legal Services has increased over the past two years from 187 in 2004 to 295 in 2006. According to Wilson, this upward trend in criminal activity doesn't reflect an increase in violence, though.

"The number of criminal cases is skyrocketing, mainly due to more alcohol-related crimes," Wilson said. "There's been a noticeable crackdown on alcohol during the past two years."

When asked if Student Legal Services is underutilized by University students, Wilson said, "It doesn't feel like that at this time of the year."

In 2005, roughly 35 percent of the students who met with Wilson about a legal matter continued to use his services after the initial consultation, either for representation in court or other legal assistance, Wilson said. Since the beginning of 2006, that number has risen to 43 percent.

"But we do see third and fourth-year students who didn't even know that we existed, which is frustrating," Wilson said.

First-year College student Courtney Mallow wasn't aware that the University offered legal services to students, either.

"If the need arose, I would definitely consider the University's services instead of an outside law firm," she said.

Wilson said Student Legal Services places ads about the free lease checks it offers to students who choose to live off-Grounds and want a professional to scan their leases before they sign them.

"We [introduce the service] at summer orientation now, which helps, but students who are just going through orientation don't think they're ever going to need a lawyer," Wilson said.

First-year College student Anastasia Crihfield suggested the organization should reach out to first-year students as they begin to sign leases for upper-class housing.

Wilson said the best way for students to use the services that Student Legal Services offers is to call the office and set up an appointment.

"It's good to have an appointment because often I'm in court or meeting with other students, so it's better to not just walk in," Wilson said.

According to Wilson, using the telephone instead of e-mail ensures that information about each student's case remains confidential.

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