Mary Schenk | Legally Speaking with attorney Tom Betz

Mary Schenk | Legally Speaking with attorney Tom Betz

Mary Schenk, who has been covering crime and courts for more than 35 years, chats with the headline-makers on her beat. To hear the podcast in full, visit

TOM BETZ took a job in 1986 as a staff attorney for the University of Illinois Student Legal Service, thinking he'd stay a couple years. He liked the "smorgasbord" of issues presented by the 5 percent of UI students who routinely need legal help, so he never left.

This year, the UI Student Legal Service marks its 40th year of existence, making it the second-oldest student legal service in the country, trailing only Harvard.

With Betz at its helm, he and two other full-time attorneys handle issues ranging from housing problems to the consequences of arrest on an international student's visa.

On Legally Speaking this week, Betz talks with MARY SCHENK about what his office can — and can't — do for students.

What kinds of cases do you handle?

It's very common for us to see traffic tickets, misdemeanor cases. The lion's share of what we do is housing cases: matters regarding security deposits, habitability, conditions of living, breach of contract by the landlords, evictions, things of that nature.

Our average student doesn't read the lease. This is one of the aspects of education that we do: 'Please read the lease. You are forking over $1,200, $1,500 a month. Read the document before you sign it.' A huge percentage of our students are international students. They are electronically signing leases from home ... in Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul. They have never seen the place they are renting.

They don't know if it's a good or a bad landlord. They think they are going to have fun with a good roommate. They get here, and it's very surprising.

What effect can a seemingly small indiscretion like possessing cannabis or shoplifting cause a student?

There's no such thing as expungement that makes everything go away. There is no magic wand. ... I have students from 1986 who will call me saying, 'This is following me.' It's stuff that isn't even a big deal any more, but it was at the time.

I tell them there is no statute of limitations on the internet.

What is different about your law office?

We focus heavily on prevention. We want students to know their rights, know their responsibilities. We have a huge website with 40 or more pamphlets on various subjects students deal with.

We have numerous Power Points on everything from marijuana to social media. They are all free and they can download them. We copyright nothing.

Sections (2):News, Local