FEATURE ‌ A Legal Hand Up 

Local law firm, law school, shelter team up for homeless legal clinic

"What am I, the poster boy for the Charleston City Paper?" laughs Jeff Yungman when asked to pose for yet another photo.

On top of being the clinical director at Crisis Ministries who oversees all the social work done on behalf of the "guests" at the city's only homeless shelter, Yungman is the linchpin in a legal aid clinic that will be up and running this winter to serve the men, women, children, and families that have fallen into the shelter's safety net.

click to enlarge Local Attorney Stephanie Lewis and Beat cop-turned-social worker Jeff Yungman help crisis ministries' free homeless legal clinic turn the corner
  • Local Attorney Stephanie Lewis and Beat cop-turned-social worker Jeff Yungman help crisis ministries' free homeless legal clinic turn the corner

The clinic is a three-way effort among the shelter, the Charleston School of Law (CSL), where Yungman takes night courses, and the corporate law firm of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough. The clinic will pair guests with law students and a Nelson Mullins lawyer in January when the school's spring semester begins.

Yungman, frustrated by past failed attempts to start a legal clinic at the shelter, decided to attend CSL and handle all the legal problems the guests face. Judging by the shelter's two packed houses, that could be a herculean feat.

"I'd say three out of four guests who come through here have legal issues of some kind or another," says Yungman, whose claim is echoed by another social worker copying forms outside his office in the hall. And they see almost every legal need at the shelter, from divorce and tenant-landlord disagreements to lagging child support and unclaimed welfare benefits.

"Right now," says Yungman, a former New Orleans beat cop who also used to own a Mt. Pleasant bookstore, "we have a woman in her early 30s who had been 'advised' to put her kid into foster care. He's got emotional and behavioral problems. She couldn't keep a job, so she called foster care; that wasn't a good thing, because she's now got hell to pay getting him out. Right now, she's living, again, in our family center, and it could be a couple of months before she can see her son," he says.

"Last Thursday, I went with her to court -- not as a lawyer, but as an advocate -- and the proceedings were continued for another month because the allegedly court-appointed public defender who was supposed to show up as her attorney didn't show up because one apparently hadn't been appointed yet. So, now she has to wait at least another month to get her child back."

Last week, Yungman convinced one of his law school professors, Fernando Colon-Navaro, a visiting professor who has worked at the Harvard Legal Clinic, to help write an affidavit for one of the shelter's guests who had lost his green card.

Those are exactly the kinds of problems attorney Stephanie Lewis believes her colleagues at Nelson Mullins can solve for free -- a substantial reduction in fees, considering some of the firm's senior partners charge in excess of $350 an hour for their time on a case.

Lewis says attorneys at her office -- which is one of six in the Nelson Mullins constellation that stretches from Washington, D.C., through Atlanta -- will receive cases from the shelter's social workers, but will not work on criminal cases as they're not the firm's specialty.

Yungman, who will continue to refer all those facing criminal charges to the local public defenders office, hopes to attract another firm that does criminal work by the time school begins in the fall.

Lewis, who served in a free student legal clinic while she attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Law School, says Nelson Mullins requires much more pro bono work of its attorneys than is required by the state's bar.

"The firm already serves dinner at the shelter on the first Monday of each month," says Lewis of the three-way partnership that coalesced to help others get back on their feet, legal and otherwise. She says the firm will focus on getting guests all the benefits coming to them.

Yungman says this is exactly the kind of partnership Abby Edwards was trying to forge years ago when she worked at Nelson Mullins. Edwards, who is in the process of closing her N. Myrtle Beach practice, is now the director of student services at Charleston School of Law, according to officials at the school.

It's also the kind of partnership the school was hoping to forge. It is one of a few law schools, private or public, that has pro bono requirements for both its students and faculty.

"That's one of the opportunities we were looking forward to getting involved with," says Alex Sanders, the former College of Charleston president who helped found the school three years ago with the mission of turning out lawyers ready to serve the public's best interests.

"That doesn't mean that when someone graduates from the Charleston School of Law they have to become Mother Theresa," says Sanders, on a break from teaching at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "There are opportunities for public service in every aspect of law, if they were only taken."

Sanders, a former state judge, praised Nelson Mullins' other good works, specifically citing the hundreds of thousands of dollars it must have spent on a lawsuit challenging the "adequacy" of the state's public K-12 education funding.

"If you start with Jeff Yungman's dream before he entered law school, then you know that it's very important to him, and to us, to build a legal community to help Crisis Ministries," says law school dean Richard Gershon. "This clinic really does reflect that we are training lawyers that they really do need to give something back to the community."

So far, Yungman has been able to convince more than 25 students to join him in working at the clinic.

"From a student's viewpoint, this is a good opportunity to learn by doing," says Gershon. "To get a chance to provide help and support in the community is a golden opportunity, because students get to use the very skills they are learning in law school."

So, to answer Yungman's question: Yes, Jeff, you will remain the City Paper's poster boy so long as you continue to do compelling work for those stranded on the fringes of our society.

Or until you convince all the other lawyers in town to do likewise.


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