By Brandon Gee
A Marblehead couple hopes to make prompt, quality legal advice as ubiquitous on college campuses as sticker-covered laptops and red Solo Cups.
Bonnie and Jim Garaventi’s creation of StudentDefend.com was motivated by personal experience. They’re withholding the specific details, but suffice it to say that one of their four children was “doing what so many other college kids might on any given Friday night. Having fun, while not exactly making the best of choices,” according to the company’s website.
The police showed up. Choices made in the moments following reverberated across several anxious months and left the Garaventis with a newfound appreciation for the importance of immediate access to experienced legal advice.
For a subscription fee of $89 a year, StudentDefend promises to connect college students with exactly that. Members are given a toll-free number that can be called from anywhere in the country at any time. An operator then connects the member with a criminal defense attorney in that person’s area for an initial consultation.
One benefit of the service, Bonnie Garaventi says, is that it removes parents from the equation, at least initially.
“The biggest hindrance to getting help in that moment is that the children, more than anything, don’t want their parents to find out,” the physical therapist says. “But … in those days, very quickly, a bad situation can become so much worse.”
Her husband, an advertising exec, adds that many of the attorneys the couple spoke with noted how much time lawyers spend trying to “undo mistakes made after the fact.”
Even if a college student is clearheaded enough to want to seek legal help, StudentDefend offers benefits over other options, according to Jim Garaventi. Since many students go to school far from home, their parents or a family lawyer may not be able to find a local — and competent — criminal defense attorney quickly. And while the police should always honor a request to “call a lawyer,” they may not be as receptive to, “Can I have my phone back to search for a lawyer on Google?”
“There’s a point where you need an attorney and good advice right away,” Jim Garaventi says. “We would want to know who our child is getting advice from rather than whoever came up first in Google.”
As of its launch with the start of the 2014 school year, StudentDefend’s network includes attorneys in every state, totaling nearly 400 nationwide. The Garaventis decide which ones get to be part of the network and say they will hire more as the student base grows.
“It was very professional,” says StudentDefend lawyer Daniel K. Gelb of Boston’s Gelb & Gelb. “Clearly they did their homework on my background. They certainly vetted that I was in good standing and professionally competent. It was clear to me that they had researched me online and knew how other services have rated me.”
Still, the Garaventis — and their own lawyers at Goodwin Procter in Boston — are quick to point out that StudentDefend is merely a lawyer directory, not a referral service, law firm or provider of legal advice.
No money is exchanged between StudentDefend and lawyers. StudentDefend operators hang up as soon as a student is connected with a lawyer. At that point it’s up to the lawyers to determine what advice to give, and the students to decide whether to retain the attorney beyond the initial consultation.
Gelb envisions himself not only helping students with criminal charges, but also schools’ internal disciplinary proceedings. With a zero-tolerance environment on many campuses, he notes that allegations of student misconduct can have long-term consequences on the academic and professional careers of young people.