This article is part of our “Dealing with…” advice series, written by activists based on their own experiences.
A Few Helpful Tips on How to Find an Attorney
If you are thinking of filing a Title IX or Clery complaint, one of the first things you should do is find good legal representation. Especially if you are at a college or university that has been unsupportive or outright hostile, your attorney may be the first person (other than you) who will truly be working on YOUR behalf. While the initial search for legal representation may be stressful and frustrating, it is the first step to seeking justice. Additionally, attorneys can do more than simply assist you with your university or civil case — they can be another important support system. They can assist if you choose to report to the police, seek medical care, or take other action.
Here is some advice collected by anti-violence activists and survivors to aid you in your search for an attorney:
1. Ask your advocates for suggestions.
First and foremost, know that whenever you speak to an advocate your conversation may not be legally privileged. Ask them to recommend an attorney with whom you can be open about the details of your case. If you are lucky enough to be on a campus with a good women’s center or organization dedicated to interpersonal violence prevention and victims’ services, ask members to see if they have any recommendations for legal support. They may be able to point you toward a firm or office that has experience dealing with this area of law. Once you have legal representation, everything you say to your attorney is confidential and protected by attorney-client privilege. This same privilege extends to initial meetings with potential counsel, even if you choose someone else.
2. Look for organizations and firms that specialize in this field of law.
Victims’ rights organizations are an invaluable resource for pro bono or contingency fee-based representation — use them!
- The Victim Rights Law Center (pro bono) assists victims in Massachusetts and Portland, OR. You can contact the VRLC by phone at 617-399-6720 x19 or at their web address here.
- Network for Victim Recovery of DC (pro bono) assists survivors within the DC metropolitan area with crisis advocacy, case management and legal support. Contact NVRDC’s office at 202-742-1727 or nvrdc.org to learn about how their legal staff can assist you in civil, criminal and administrative (campus) processes.
- Victim Rights Center of Connecticut (VRCCT) provides no-cost legal representation to survivors of sexual assault or harassment in administrative proceedings at universities, including: filing administrative complaints; representing survivors in disciplinary hearings; and advocating for reasonable school safety, health and educational accommodations. They also represent victims in criminal court, protecting their privacy and constitutional rights. You can contact VRCCT by email at email@example.com or phone at (203)350-3515.
- SurvJustice (contingency fee) is a national nonprofit providing legal assistance to survivors in campus disciplinary hearings. You can contact SurvJustice here.
- The National Women’s Law Center (pro bono) is able to assist in filing Title IX complaints and lawsuits in limited circumstances. If the NWLC is unable to represent you, they will make an effort to refer you to another attorney.
- Equal Rights Advocates runs a hotline through which the San Francisco-based organization can provide you with legal information and, if they cannot represent you, referrals to other attorneys.
- Legal Momentum. You can reach Legal Momentum’s Helpline at titleix[AT]legalmomentum[DOT]org or (212) 925-6635, ext. 650.
- The Transgender Law Center’s Legal Information Helpline provides basic information about civil rights laws that impact trans people. You can contact them for help here.
- The National Crime Victim’s Center can help connect you with victim’s rights attorneys.
- The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) provides direct representation for low income transgender people and trans people of color in three main areas. If they can’t represent you, they can provide referrals and information on a wide range of issues affecting transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Learn more and contact SRLP here.
- If you have questions about your legal rights related to your sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status, you can contact the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders’ (GLAD) Legal InfoLine (1-800-455-GLAD).
- The Harvard Law School Gender Violence Program (pro bono) has specially offered to help campus survivors seeking help through Know Your IX.
- Public Justice can help you file Title IX complaints and lawsuits on a contingency fee basis (not necessarily pro bono). You can contact the organization for legal assistance by phone at (202) 797-8600 or by email at caseintake[at]publicjustice[dot]net.
Wherever you turn to find legal assistance, make sure that your attorney has the appropriate experience to help you with your case.
3. Look for attorneys or firms that do pro-bono work.
You should not have to pay out of pocket for justice. Avoid attorneys that charge an hourly rate if you can and instead look for those who will work pro bono or for a contingency fee. A contingency fee means that if you are filing for damages, your attorney will take a percentage of whatever you recover. Because of the national attention that is now being drawn to Title IX cases, there are many attorneys willing to take on cases pro bono. Contacting local law schools can also be helpful, especially if they have a law school clinic.
4. Don’t be afraid to get several legal opinions.
If you don’t feel comfortable with an attorney, keep looking! The initial intake meeting with an attorney should be free of charge so do not be afraid to “shop around.” Your attorney will be your advocate. You should feel comfortable with your attorney. If you do not, trust your gut and keep looking. Make sure that your attorney (and their firm) has no conflict of interest that could hinder your case. Have your attorney propose a timeline so that you can hold them to it and not allow your attorney to delay your case. Some suits have statutes of limitations so prompt action may be needed to preserve your rights.
5. Come prepared to attorney meetings.
You may need to bring specific legal documents to your first meeting with your attorney and they may even be required during a preliminary phone call. It is recommended that you take some time to write down your own experience and create a timeline with supportive documents to prepare for meetings with attorneys. Remember you should not disclose any materials until you choose an attorney to represent you. Make sure you have your Social Security Number, income level (if you meet a law office’s requirements you should be able to receive their help pro bono), and any other legal documents you have when you make initial contact with your potential attorney.
6. Know your options.
Under Title IX you can file an administrative complaint and/or a private lawsuit. There are pros and cons to both, but basically the former means you will not receive recovery whereas the latter allows you recovery. Note that these two suits CANNOT be pursued at the same time. You will want to consult with your attorney and strongly consider yourself which avenue you would like to pursue. You can also file a civil suit that may permit you recovery against the individual (or institution) that harmed you. Even if you are only filing criminal charges, you may be able to recover financially through restitution and should consult your attorney to discuss your options.
7. Don’t give up.
You deserve justice. The search for an attorney in and of itself is stressful and the process can be emotionally draining and extremely triggering. You will find yourself repeating your story to different people. Remember to take care of yourself. If you have a family member or friend who has been particularly supportive, bring them with you to meetings. Know that the support you need and deserve is out there.
A few helpful links and resources:
- ACLU, “Gender-Based Violence & Harassment: Your School, Your Rights”: http://www.aclu.org/womens-rights/gender-based-violence-harassment-your-school-your-rights
- ACLU, “Title IX and Sexual Violence in Schools”:
- National Women’s Law Center, Contact Information: http://www.nwlc.org/contact
- National Women’s Law Center, “Sexual Harassment & Bullying”:
Although these resources have been written with the guidance of legal experts, we are not lawyers, and the information on this website does not constitute legal advice. We encourage you to contact a lawyer to discuss your complaint or suit.