SGA takes the law into its own hands

At the Jan. 31 Student Government Association (SGA)-sponsored law seminar, students got a chance to ask professionals in the law field any law-related questions they had. Assistant Attorney General John Bender and business and healthcare attorney at law Michael Schaff fielded questions regarding such topics as leasing a house off campus and applying to law school.

Bender was quick to distance himself from any liability issues stemming from his appearance, leading off his opening statement with, “I just need to warn you, nothing I say should be attributed to the attorney general’s office.”

“Anything I say should be attributed to him,” Schaff said, pointing to Bender.

The overall tone of the meeting was very informal, with Schaff constantly poking fun at the audience in an effort to keep everyone in the room on their feet. “I’ve learned that no matter what it is you do, if you make it fun then it gets easier to do,” Schaff said.

Bender attended Seton Hall Law School at night while working full time during the day. He called the process an “intense experience.” He clerked for a judge for one year after passing the bar.

Schaff acquired a JD/MBA (joint degree in law and business) from Drew University and currently works in a law firm based out of Woodbridge.

The Q-and-A session opened with an inquiry about housing.

“Can you get out of a lease that’s been signed already?” one student asked. “We’re looking for houses since some of us are getting kicked off campus next year.”

Schaff said they should look into the lease before it’s been signed, but landlords really want to lock tenants into a contract for the year. According to Schaff, tenants might have to give something up to get the freedom of being able to get out of a signed lease.

Someone else asked if their landlord could walk into a house unannounced, since the landlord owns it. Schaff said there should be a “quiet enjoyment” clause which gives tenants the ability to enjoy their house without the landlord walking in without knocking.

A girl who is matriculating next year said at 22 she would be kicked off her parent’s health insurance, and asked if there was anything she could do to stay on her parents’ insurance plan. Schaff said since she is already accepted into graduate school, then she is still considered a full-time student and depending on the exact terms of her parents’ plan, she could be covered until she finishes graduate school.

“Under what circumstances can a police officer search your car?” another student asked.

Bender said previously, an officer needed signed written consent from the driver to search a car. But due to new policies and regulations, all that is required is either a warrant or probable cause at the scene.

“Going into your trunk requires a little more, and searching under the spare tire in the bottom of your trunk requires a lot more,” Bender said.

One student asked if citizens were required to let a police officer in if he asks, “May I come in?”

“Look, just say no,” Schaff said. “And make sure someone else hears you.”

According to Schaff, a car or house is private property and no one is allowed in without permission.

“But be polite,” he warned. “You can’t physically stop an officer from entering your house, especially if he has probable cause to enter your residence. You might be liable for battery.”

“Am I responsible for my friend Joe Schmo if he’s at my house drunk and is harassing people?” another student asked.

Schaff answered yes, because the student might be held accountable for host liability, wherein the student could be sued if something happened on his property.

Not all questions pertained to legal issues. One student interested in law as a profession asked, “Did you find that after you took courses in law school, it was easy to find jobs under your section of law?”

“I wasn’t looking for any particular type of law, but I know that I did like public law,” Bender said.

“Unless you do real well in school, it’ll be hard to find a job. Like college, you don’t graduate knowing much in your field, you only come away with maturity . If you specialize your schooling (like I did) you can help make yourself better and stand out,” Schaff said.

The overall message Bender and Schaff conveyed was that they enjoy their jobs as civil lawyers. Bender and Schaff cited that respectively, among their most memorable experiences as lawyers the standouts were contributing services to families of Sept. 11 victims and helping guide and mentor prospective lawyers. “It feels good to give back to the people,” Schaff said.