U. lawyer doles out advice to students

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2012

If a spat with a landlord turns ugly or spring break doesn’t go exactly as planned, stressed-out students sometimes find themselves in need of more than just a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. When legality becomes an issue, students might want to seek advice from a professional. But good lawyers can be hard to come by, and their fees can be steep. To address some of these concerns, Brown offers on-campus legal services to any undergraduate, graduate or medical student – for free. 

The Graduate Student Council and the Undergraduate Council of Students teamed up with University administrators to begin the program several years ago when UCS decided to apportion funds to pay for a lawyer to offer services part-time, said Yolanda Castillo-Appollonio, the assistant dean in the Office of Student Life in charge of the program. 

Brown is currently the only school in the Ivy League that offers free legal aid to students, though Yale was looking to implement a similar program as of October 2011, according to an article in the Yale Daily News. 

Attorney Len O’Brien ’68, who has his own firm in Providence and works mainly as a litigator in white-collar criminal defense, is currently the lawyer employed by the University. He hosts office hours for students on Tuesday afternoons at the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and offers phone consultations Thursday afternoons. 

O’Brien began offering his services two and a half years ago when he was “dragooned” into signing on by someone he had known during his time as an undergraduate at Brown, he said. But, he added, switching to a more serious tone, he genuinely enjoys consulting with students.

“The topics are different and broader and cause me to think about things and also talk to folks of a type I don’t get to generally talk to when I’m working, so it’s fun,” he said. 

O’Brien consults with an average of four to six students a week between in-person and phone consultations over the course of the year, a group composed of more undergraduate and graduate students than medical students, he said.  

“It’s a crazy-good resource,” said Kiana Ward ’13, who was referred to O’Brien for help with her thesis. As an environmental studies concentrator, Ward is examining legal issues surrounding pollution from the Chevron refinery. 

“I don’t have any background in law. … He gave me a lot of tangential evidence from around the country,” she said. “He was really good about bringing in case studies and things to help me with my point.”

O’Brien said the issues he typically advises on range from disputes with landlords, divorce, intellectual property rights and student-founded nonprofits. He added that he has yet to deal with a felony defense. 

But O’Brien has certain restrictions in the nature of services he is allowed to offer, he said. Under the Rules of Professional Conduct, O’Brien cannot consult with students if they already have representation unless given specific permission to discuss the issue by the representing lawyer. 

Additionally, O’Brien cannot consult with students about visa or immigration questions or any issue relating to the University or a Brown community member. 

“If you have something where you’ve backed your car up into another Brown student’s car, you wouldn’t want someone who’s associated with the student government and student activities advising them on how they could best sue you,” he said. 

O’Brien will mediate disputes over leases, but only with the presence of all of the students involved, he said. In all other cases, he will refer students to another lawyer, as he does with any student requiring representation for legal defense rather than just advice. 

“My job is to consult, not to represent,” he said. But O’Brien said he has made certain exceptions when bullying landlords have tried to take advantage of students in small dispute court hearings. Landlords don’t often anticipate that students will contest a security deposit charge, but they shouldn’t back down, he said. 

He added that the service is constructive for students, benefitting both those looking for educational instruction and help with personal quandaries. 

“All of us, even lawyers, value someone (we) can turn to,” he said. 

One Comment

  1. He’s very approachable and helpful in guiding me and my friends through our disputes with a terrible landlady. We didn’t get our security deposit back, but still, he was great. Having someone to consult with for legal issues free of charge, especially for international students, is invaluable.

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