March 26, 2012
In January 2012, the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG)
launched a Mobile Legal Help Center (MLHC) to bring legal services
to neighborhoods throughout New York City that need them most. The
$350,000 van housing the MLHC ―which costs $300,000 a year to
operate ― was initially funded, in part, by the David Berg
Foundation and boasts three legal offices, a waiting area, Internet
access and teleconferencing/videoconferencing capabilities along
with fax, phone and laptop setup. NYLAG has taken this innovative
legal service delivery in partnership with the New York State
Courts' Access to Justice Program and with staffing assistance from
students in the Law School’s
Economic Justice Clinic.
Law School Communications Director Lori Herz talked to Chris Mukon
’13 about his experience with the Economic Justice Clinic and his
role in this new community outreach initiative.
LH: Why did you decide to participate in the Law
School’s Economic Justice Clinic and what has the experience been
like for you thus far?
CM: I got involved with the Economic Justice Clinic mainly as an
opportunity to hone my client interaction skills. I particularly
liked the idea of working at the Legal Help Desk run by NYLAG’s
Project FAIR, Inc. (PFAIR), which is the only agency specializing
in fair hearings and the only coalition bringing together the
private bar, public interest law firms and social service agencies
to better serve fair hearing appellants. At the Help Desk, I get to
be the front line in dealing with real clients with real cases.
Dealing with under-served members of the community is an incredibly
important service and an important social issue of the day. Public
Benefits policy is intimately intertwined will all the clients we
serve. It seems like every case I work on is dripping with really
difficult policy, social and moral questions.
LH: Can you describe a typical day at NYLAG’s PFAIR,
manning its Legal Help Desk in Brooklyn?
CM: PFAIR’s Legal Help Desk is located at 14 Boerum Place in
Brooklyn, where Fair Hearings are held for people on public
benefits. Essentially, when somebody has an issue with the agency
over their Welfare, Food Stamps or Medicaid, this is where they go
to have their Due Process claims heard. We set up in the corner of
the waiting area. There are usually two advocates ― law students,
paralegals or attorneys ―at the Help Desk who do client intake and
provide information, advice and referrals to city and community
programs. I’d say that one of the most important things we do is
listen to people's stories. A number of people come by with issues
we can't help them with. Maybe they've done everything they can
already or there's simply no legal recourse. At this point, they
just want someone to listen to their story. It's tough when there's
nothing you can do, but I do feel like I'm doing at least some
small good by putting these people's minds at ease a little
LH: The Mobile Legal Help Center is an exciting new
venture. What has it been like for you to be part of this community
outreach from its start?
CM: It's really great being one of the people helping to get the
MLHC off the ground. While operating a lot like PFAIR’s Help Desk,
the van gives NYLAG a more visible street presence, offers more ―
and more private ― client meeting areas and is well equipped with
technology like video conferencing. What I love about it as an
advocate is the variety. On any given day in the van, clients seek
our help on a range of issues like consumer debt, criminal defense,
family court and personal injury. It’s a very exciting place to
LH: How has your work with the EJC and the MLHC enhanced
your legal education at St. John’s?
CM: The most important thing my work with the clinic and the MLHC
has taught me is that if you know your client and his/her needs and
objectives, there are often multiple ways to achieve a fair result.
In the realm of public benefits, you advocate for people from all
sorts of backgrounds and circumstances. Some clients make you feel
like an invincible underdog, while others really test your resolve.
One of the common threads weaving through is the stakes. Clients on
public benefits don't have much. When the city threatens to
sanction their food stamps or housing, they are literally one
hearing away from living on the street or not being able to feed
their family. Those stakes can be very emotional and dramatic for
our clients. Knowing this helps me work through any issues we have
as a team and focus on the ultimate goal. Beyond this, I've learned
to negotiate with broken bureaucracies, how to stand up for someone
in front of a judge and how, more often than not, persistence will
get you where you want to go. Dealing with the state agencies can
be very difficult. Learning the right (and wrong) ways of engaging
the system when it breaks down have really given me a leg up on my
advocacy skills. If you can't be an effective advocate, you can't
be a good lawyer.
LH: Have you gained any mentors through your Economic
Justice Clinic participation?
CM: Adjunct Professor Christopher J. Portelli, who heads the EJC
and co-directs NYLAG’s PFAIR, has been a great mentor to me at the
clinic and on site at the Legal Help Desk and in the MLHC. Not only
is he a great person to work for, he's great to work with. He's
incredibly knowledgeable and genuinely compassionate about the
clinic’s goals and the mission. He's really opened my eyes to the
state of the public benefits system, both from the internal realm
of advocacy and from the greater scope of public policy and
politics. Professor Portelli is constantly engaging and encouraging
us to be better advocates for the under-served communities that we
try to help. I think the most important reason he's so effective at
his job is that he really believes in the work he is doing. He
really believes that he can change the world, and so he does. That
sort of passion and belief is contagious and he's been a great
example to me of how to open the dialogue when dealing with tough
issues like poverty and public welfare programs.
LH: Is the connection between your clinic work and St.
John’s Vincentian mission to help the underserved and
underrepresented in our community a significant connection for
CM: I think the public service aspects are really important.
Particularly in areas relating so closely to poverty, society as a
whole needs people to go out of their way to follow their
conscience and do what's right to better the communities we live
in. To that end, the Vincentian mission is commendable and reflects
directly on the work we do in this clinic. If people don't act out
of principle and righteousness, then certain problems will never be
LH: Chris, thank you for sharing your story with
For more information about the Economic Justice Clinic and other
partner and in-house clinics at St. John’s School of Law, please
visit our website.