When Jurij Mykolajtchuk was attending Rutgers Law School, he helped mount a case on behalf of a widow facing foreclosure on her home.
“The odds were totally against us,” recalls Mykolajtchuk NLAW’94, who worked on the case with fellow students and a professor in one of the school’s legal clinics. “But ultimately this powerhouse law firm settled with us, and our client was able to keep her house.”
For Mykolajtchuk, that memory of helping a client keep her home—and her dignity—remains vivid and powerful. And it has become an enduring theme in his career as a trust and estates attorney.
In 2013, Mykolajtchuk, a solo practitioner in Manhattan and New Jersey, joined several colleagues in an innovative effort to provide free legal assistance on end-of-life planning, probate, and estate issues to low-income clients in New York City.
The Planning and Estates Law Project (PELP) was founded and is led by attorney Pamela Ehrenkranz NLAW’82, chair of the trusts and estates practice at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York City. The project is guided by the belief that all people, regardless of income, should have access to legal assistance to protect their assets and pass them on in the manner they choose.
“For the person who accumulated $10,000 over their lifetime, it’s just as important to them to be able to bequeath their savings to their intended beneficiaries as it is for the person who has accumulated $100 million,’’ Mykolajtchuk says. “The person with $100 million is most likely adequately represented, but the person with $10,000 may not be.”
Typically, PELP—which is run through the nonprofit arm of the New York City Bar Association—helps clients resolve inheritance matters after a loved one’s death. Although the project does not represent clients in court, Mykolajtchuk and his colleagues hold monthly clinics at the bar association’s headquarters to guide people through the estate administration process, helping them prepare documents to file in court and other tasks.
PELP has assisted more than 1,300 clients with legal matters, and during the pandemic it extended its services to front-line health care workers.
“We have people coming to the clinic who don’t have much money and may never have come face to face with an attorney,” Mykolajtchuk says. “It’s such a great experience and honor to help them.”
The project also highlights Rutgers Law School’s longtime emphasis on pro bono and public-interest legal work. Besides the contributions of alumni like Ehrenkranz and Mykolajtchuk, Rutgers law students often elect to participate.
Babatunde P. Odubekun NCAS’14, NLAW’17 says he learned valuable, detail-oriented skills during his semester volunteering for PELP. And he was moved by the expressions of gratitude he received from clients.
“One person came up to me and said, ‘I don’t know what I would have done without you,”’ says Odubekun, now an in-house counsel at a solar energy firm. “What we were doing was really making a difference in people’s lives, and it could be as simple as helping them get the documents they need.”
For Mykolajtchuk, PELP has deep personal resonance. His parents were Ukrainian immigrants who settled in Philadelphia after fleeing persecution in their home country. His father, a carpenter, died when Mykolajtchuk was 4 years old. His mother, a seamstress, raised two boys on her own and pushed them to go to college.
“When you talk about fighting against the odds, I know what that’s like,” Mykolajtchuk says.
He was drawn to law, both for the intellectual challenge and the opportunity to help others. He found that trust and estates law offered the ideal combination of the two.
He feels a strong connection to the clients coming to the PELP clinics, and they feel the same. One offered him a hug for his help. Another offered pierogi—dumplings served in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.
“When I was asked to get involved with PELP, there was no question about it,” he says. “It was like hand in glove.”