I am a college student defense attorney.
My clients are college and university students accused of violating their school’s conduct and academic honor codes, students who require criminal defense against the criminal charges that often arise with school conduct violations, and students who need help bringing complaints either in the university system or the criminal justice system.
My team and I are good at what we do. In 2015, we won every campus sexual assault defense case we undertook. And campus sexual assault cases are very difficult cases to win. Ask around.
But it’s been an education. And an evolution.
I started out on the other side—as a prosecutor. For eleven years, I served as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., where I tried and investigated cases ranging from shoplifting to political corruption. For a number of those years, I specialized in prosecuting sex crimes against adults and children. My law partner—Julie Grohovsky—and I secured the first ever life-without-parole sentence for a serial rapist in Washington, D.C. I also pioneered the use of expert testimony in domestic violence cases. Those cases taught me that sex crimes were among the most difficult cases to investigate and prosecute. In my overall experience as a prosecutor, I learned that criminal cases—all criminal cases—are extremely hard to do right. Police and prosecutors vary in terms of their quality and expertise, of course, but they are highly trained professionals who have had experience interviewing and assessing hundreds, if not thousands, of complainants, accused, witnesses, and cases over their careers. No such parallel exists in a university setting, where even cases that originate from campus police are overseen by administrators with no investigative or prosecutorial background.
When I first heard of incidents in which universities accused students, my reaction was that such schools had no business playing police, prosecutor, and judge—and I said so. In particular, it seemed ridiculous to think that universities could do justice in campus sexual assault cases, cases that even trained police and prosecutors struggled to get right. But, over time, my view has evolved. Colleges and universities do have a legal and moral duty to deal with cases like these. As educators, they must address student conduct and protect their students from each other—and sometimes from themselves. The schools are in loco parentis (Latin: “in place of the parent”). Responsibility comes with the territory.
These colleges and universities, however, need help. And like any institution—or any person—you cannot get help until you realize you need it. Unfortunately, most colleges and universities do not realize the extent of help they need.
Almost every American college and university states that their university justice system is not a court and that they do not consider their hearings to be legal proceedings. Inside these hearings, rules of evidence do not apply. For those schools that do allow lawyers or other advisors to accompany the complainant student or accused student to a hearing, university rules prohibit the lawyer or advisor from speaking or participating. Some schools specifically state that any advisor is there strictly for moral support. Thus colleges and universities have apparently succeeded in implementing William Shakespeare’s famous quote: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
But this quote is misunderstood. The line appears in Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” and is uttered by a follower of the rebel Jack Cade who is seeking to impose tyranny. The playwright intended the words to indicate that it is, in fact, the lawyers and judges who protect justice in our society. Perhaps schools need to review their Shakespeare.
In my practice, clients are well-served by a professional team with years of experience navigating a university’s justice system, liaising with its administration, and preparing for hearings. These roles should be and can be an invaluable aid to running an effective justice system. Too often, however, colleges and universities fear the potential adversarial nature of law—as well as the law’s ability to shine light into the black box of how universities make disciplinary decisions.