Rutgers offers legal services to students for free
A Rutgers alumnus hoping to improve student involvement in their legal services spoke to the Rutgers University Student Assembly at last Thursday's meeting.
Director of Student Legal Services Donald Heilman explained to RUSA how members can access the free services the University offers students.
“Don went to Rutgers and lives Rutgers,” said Elections Chair and School of Arts and Sciences junior Viktor Krapivin in his introduction of the director.
Heilman graduated from Cook College in 1976, received his Ph.D from the University, performed research at the medical college in anthropology and lettered in football and track during his undergraduate years.
Much of Heilman’s personal life is also tied to the University: Two of his six sisters also graduated from the University, his father worked for the University for 27 years and Heilman married his wife in Kirkpatrick Chapel on the College Avenue campus on Rutgers Day.
“I consider myself Rutgers through and through,” Heilman said.
Heilman holds a law degree from Seton Hall University and became "invested in how civil trial works." Out of 80,000 lawyers in the state of New Jersey, only 2 percent are certified trial attorneys.
He knew he wanted to work in education and worked at the University in student affairs as a director of club sports and intramural sports, eventually becoming an associate dean of students.
As the current director of legal services, Heilman connects education with law.
"(My department) provides legal assistance and representation with full attorney-client privilege to eligible University students about any legal issue whatsoever, for free,” he said. "(This job is a) general practice dream come true for attorneys who want to help people with their problems.”
The department helps students with a large variety of problems, which range from dealing with criminal charges to divorce to patent issues.
"We’ve had two students kill other people, we’ve had 14 students die, we’ve had — don’t know how many — students lose their parents or grandparents, we’ve had hundreds of arrests for drugs, weapons, assault and battery, sexual assault, domestic violence,” Heilman said.
A quarter of Rutgers students are over the age of 25, which means students may be married, he said. These students can turn to legal services in the case of divorcing and fighting for custody.
Some students need help starting or selling businesses, which can include declaring bankruptcy. Other students need help filing copyrights or patents, he said.
Off-campus residents fight with landlords over unreturned deposits every year. These deposits can total up to $7 million every year, he said.
"(Students) have immigration and naturalization issues, as do their parents or grandparents," he said. "That's what goes on in my office."
The department of legal services is the only office authorized by the University to deal with all these issues, and has a special program with the state to assist it. To handle this large amount of work, the department developed a formalized referral program with the Middlesex County Bar Association.
This is one of two county bar associations in the state that have a state-licensed referral program with an American Bar Association (ABA) certificate from Harvard University.
“We’ll get dozens of men and women who want to assist students at reduced rates,” Heilman said. “We piggy-back on the already existing reduced fee that the bar association had in place, and students are entitled to the reduced fee.”
Lawyers of the programs have to be members of bar association, must agree to the reduced fee and must pass a two-credit class taught by Heilman called, “How to Represent College Students.”
More than 250 men and women have taken that class and are certified in 35 states. The referral program has become a model for other universities, he said.
Heilman aims to hold educational outreach seminars and workshops, providing educational opportunities for interested students.
Bushra Hasan is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. She is a staff writer for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @bushrafhasan for more.