• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Grad Students And The Law

An attorney reflects on common legal issues graduate students face.

November 15, 2016

Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.




Disclaimer: This column is not intended as legal advice regarding specific situations, nor is any attorney-client relationship created herein. If you have questions about your individual situation, please consult an attorney in your jurisdiction.


Graduate students lead busy academic lives, doing things like performing original research and negotiating contracts. Graduate students also lead busy personal lives, doing things like getting married and renting apartments. Despite their professional status, most graduate students have yet to start to earn professional salaries and, consequently, are left with few options when leases go south, patents are in dispute, and other legal problems arise. Fortunately, help is out there.


Amanda Elkins is the assistant supervising attorney at Student Legal Services at the University of Iowa (SLS). Elkins, an attorney of six years, has worked at SLS for the past two years and has helped hundreds of graduate students with their legal questions both inside and outside the courtroom.


SLS has a threefold mission: to provide free advice and low-cost representation to UI students, to educate students and the public about legal issues they may encounter, and to provide a training opportunity for law students [this author worked in the office for two years]. In the past year, 23% of the students who came through the SLS office were graduate students - a figure proportional to the percentage of graduate students in the UI student body.


Elkins drew on her experience serving graduate students to answer some questions addressing the most common legal issues they face in their professional and personal lives.


Patrick Bigsby: Have you found that the issues faced by undergraduate and graduate students are similar?


Amanda Elkins: No. For the most part, there are far fewer criminal charges, which makes sense: you won’t see underage drinking or underage in-bar tickets. One criminal charge we regularly see in both groups is drunk driving, so that might stand out as a grad student issue as well as an undergrad issue.


That said, the biggest area of overlap between grads and undergrads is that we see quite a few grad students for landlord-tenant issues. I think part of the reason for that is that they have probably rented somewhere else and then they come to Iowa City and things are bad, or at least worse than what they were used to. I also think grad students might tend to take a little more pride in their apartments and they’re a little more sensitive to the money being paid. Undergrads might think ‘Oh, this is a security deposit, that must mean it’s not refundable” whereas grad students would recognize that they took care of the property and need their money back.


PB: You already mentioned landlord-tenant issues as one area that affects grad students. Are there any other grad-student specific issues that your office handles?


AE: With grad students, we also see more divorces, which again makes sense due to the age of the population. Some SLS offices don’t handle divorces, but we do and that is a significant service for grad students. Typical grad students can’t afford to hire private attorneys; a $2000 retainer fee to start a divorce is something out of reach. I would guess we’re the only affordable option in the area.


In the past we handled divorces with children, which are significantly more time-consuming cases. We don’t take divorces with children any longer, but do still see many students on an advice-only basis about custody issues. As with divorces, private attorney’s fees for custody cases are out of reach for the average grad student budget, so we have been considering bringing that part of the practice back.


PB: Given that grad students are tasked with doing original research, do intellectual property disputes ever come through your office?


AE: Occasionally someone will come to us with a patent or trademark question and that is something we have to refer out due to the conflict of interest created by being a university office. However, one topic that SLS offices across the country are reporting more frequently are scams that target grad students where they receive email solicitations offering to publish work in exchange for pay and, after the money changes hands, it doesn’t pan out. We’ve been reaching out to the graduate schools, the graduate student government, and international programs on campus to alert them to this trend.


PB: Is there anything in particular grad students should do to protect themselves from those sorts of scams?


AE: Do your homework! My rule for the internet is that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. We’ve also had grad students targeted by people who find students’ names on university web pages and present themselves as parents of young children looking for tutors and then offer to send the students $1000 provided they pass on $500 to a third party. You get the money, the check bounces, and you’ve already sent $500 to a random person across the country who will never be found. University sites and other listings of grad students are easy targets for that sort of activity.


PB: Many grad students are also employees – at their university or elsewhere. Are you ever asked about labor issues?


AE: Sometimes. Usually, it’s something that looks fishy on a pay stub and can be sorted out by calling the payroll office. One interesting question is created when undergraduates hold positions originally designated grad students or vice versa and the university has to decide which pay rate, grad or undergrad, should apply. That’s beyond our office’s purview, but it is an issue we think about.


Another labor-related issue we have seen in the past is when a professor is changing universities and wants to bring their graduate assistants along. That creates issues with housing, employment conditions, and research ownership questions.


PB: You were recently admitted to practice in bankruptcy court, specifically with the intent to add a practice area primarily serving grad students. Can you talk a little about that decision?


AE: The other attorney in the office and I had been talking about it over the summer and we were in agreement that it’s something we needed to know about, so it’s been exciting to get up to speed in that area. Bankruptcy is another one of those areas where students don’t have another resource to go to, either through the school or a private attorney. Some of the other student legal offices in the country already do bankruptcies, so that’s been a great resource for us. Obviously, student loan debt isn’t dischargeable, but there are other debts grad students may incur that the average undergrad would be less likely to deal with.


PB: Do you a lot of grad students participate in your educational and outreach programs?


AE: Some do, but we’re looking for ways to reach more of them. Grad student schedules might not be as conducive as undergrad schedules to our student programming. The presentations about renting probably attract the most graduate students.


PB: Is there anything else you’d like grad students to know?


AE: Encourage your schools to start SLS programs! There are hundreds of universities in the country and less than 100 SLS offices.


Have you ever dealt with a legal problem in graduate school? How did you address it? Let us know in the comments!


[Photo is courtesy of Flickr user karen_neoh and used under the Creative Commons.]


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