Stefanie Young

Family Law Attorney

From my experience, nine out of ten times if someone doesn’t look like you or hasn’t had experience, it’s hard to trust you. They can trust us.

“When I was in college, I took an extra credit seminar for my clinical psychology class. This professor focused on mental health work. She talked about her experience of being committed and the mental health system. It was so heartbreaking for me and I wanted to do something about it. It hit me really hard.

Law school wasn’t part of the plan, working in mental health had been the plan all along. But when I shadowed a lawyer, I saw how with law, clients have to navigate a system that changes from person to person. There are different policy levels. The laws are different in each state. There are so many improvements to be made in the US and all over the world, and I wanted to do something with this.

I wanted to do mental health law. I saw how family and housing law issues are related to mental health. It often relates to people’s jobs, too. I began volunteering with the Family Law team with Open Door Legal and saw that it’s related. In Hong Kong where I am from, people don’t talk about mental health. It’s a foreign concept. 

Now with Open Door Legal, we do a good job of making everything feel inclusive. It matters that our staff are diverse. The community that comes through our doors are mainly people of color. With clients who have had a prior mental health issue, I know we have to talk to them in a way that makes them feel heard. With our Chinese-speaking clients, their demeanor changes when I speak to them in Chinese. 

We do a good job of creating a safe space for our clients. From my experience, nine out of ten times if someone doesn’t look like you or hasn’t had experience, it’s hard to trust you. They can trust us.

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Ever since childhood, our co-founder Adrian has been dedicated to reducing poverty.

He studied systemic poverty in college and went to work in the field for a few years. Eventually, he had a thesis that legal aid was the most cost-effective way to address poverty in America. He wrote up a business plan and used it to apply to law school. 

The idea was to create the country’s first system of universal access to civil legal representation that ensures everyone can obtain timely, competent legal help for any legal issue, regardless of ability to pay. That had never been done before in the history of the United States.

In law school, he met Virginia, our Programs Director. Together, they co-founded the organization, two weeks after Adrian passed the bar.

When we opened we put a sign in the window, and with just that marketing and almost no other outreach we were overwhelmed with requests for help from people with good cases who had been turned away everywhere else.

Our first year we had revenue of $35,000. We would hand shred documents because a shredder was too expensive. Despite the financial challenges, we were able to work on over 280 cases in everything from housing law to family law to consumer law in the first year alone.

The hours were extreme, the pay was low, and the learning curve was steep. Still, we persisted. We knew that almost everyone we helped was not able to receive services anywhere else. Eventually, we attracted the interest of funders. We tripled our revenue for several years in a row. In 2015, we won the Bay Area Google Impact Challenge, which enabled us to expand even more. In 2019, we secured additional funding from the city that allowed us to open two new centers in the Excelsior and Western Addition.

As of 2020, our staff has grown to 27 full-time employees. We’ve shown that universal access is possible. Now, we plan to scale city-wide, make San Francisco the first city in the country’s history to have universal access to legal help, and become a model for national replication.