Christopher Young gives "Loop rats" legal advice -- at a deep discount

Jan 5, 2005 at 4:00 am
The trappings of attorney Christopher Young's office are predictably mundane: gold-rimmed desk nameplate, computer, printer and cell phone. Look a little closer, and you'll see that the ThinkPad is a '90s relic, the printer an ancient, hulking HP. But what truly jars the mind is the setting. Young awaits the arrival of his 11 o'clock consultation amid the bustle of Washington University's Hilltop Bakery.

His client, Michelle Tuetken, was driving her husband's brand-new BMW 740i when she was caught going 78 in an area with a speed limit of 55. Young typically charges 50 bucks a pop, a perfect price for Tuetken, a Wash. U. staffer who works with international students. She learned about Young from a grad-school friend.

"I have an excellent driving record, and I pay enough in insurance. I don't want it to go up!" Tuetken tells the attorney. She adds, "All I have is a hundred-dollar bill."

"Usually I don't have change for a buck," Young jokes, producing her change.

The 56-year-old Young has gained notoriety on campus for his bright yellow flyers, which read: "TRAFFIC TICKETS FIXED!!! (BEFORE THE PARENTS FIND OUT!!!) CALL 24/7." He zooms to local college campuses in a purple 1996 Chrysler Town and Country minivan that belongs to his 22-year-old girlfriend, Ann, a Wash. U. student.

He calls his practice the "Mobile Law Clinic." His slogan: "We Come to You!"

Tuetken's $50 fee is actually a pretty fair haul for Young. For one thing, ticket-fixing -- getting moving violations reduced to non-moving violations -- is a pretty low-rent racket. It is a competitive one, however, with attorneys scuffling for high-volume small change via a bevy of outdoor, television and print advertising. The St. Louis phone book lists some twenty of them, mostly large firms that don't include bit players like Young.

For speeding tickets, Young explains, attorneys plea bargain down to, essentially, parking tickets -- and prosecuting attorneys are all too happy to comply.

"They're often doing this in addition to their own practice," Young says, "and in the interest of speedy resolution, they want to settle rather than take it to court.

The work, says Young, is largely routine and mechanical, and it wouldn't seem the kind of vocation befitting a man who will talk your ear off about the Magna Carta or how he pieces together his wardrobe from area Scholar Shop outlets. But the work serves his true passion -- getting kids out of trouble.

Young spends most of his time doing pro-bono work for troubled youths who hang around the University City Loop. "I don't start usually start out working pro bono, but they just end up that way," he says with a smile. His cases tend to steer toward what he calls "dumb shit" -- petty marijuana offenses, fighting, trespassing, drinking and driving. Young calls his clients "Loop rats" -- high school- and college-age kids who hang out on Delmar Boulevard.

"That's the beauty of being seventeen," explains Young, who coined the acronym DWT, or Driving While Teen. "You're allowed to screw up, and you still get second chances."

A former in-house corporate attorney for a major local corporation (which he declines to name other than calling it a "top behavioral-health company"), Young earned "six-figure" salaries in the late 1980s and early '90s. When two of his kids grew up and moved out (a third lives with Young's former wife in Frontenac), he no longer needed a fat paycheck. After a few years spent "in a coma, writing about love and death," Young reinvented himself.

"Now I make considerably less money," he says. "Five figures, hopefully not four."

Five or six days a week, Young can be found at Starbucks on Delmar, either meeting with clients or simply chatting people up. Money doesn't drive him, and he says his fees are usually about half of what other attorneys would charge for the same service. (Interviews with former clients verify this claim.)

And then there's the pro-bono work. In one case, Young defended a Loop teenager who was taken to court for trespassing. "He didn't show up in court," Young recalls. "I discovered on the day of the trial that he was a minor, under the care and custody of Missouri's family services division."

The prosecution offered a suspended sentence. But Young pressed for leniency, telling the prosecutor, "Your goal is to get the kid gone from the Loop, and he's gone. My goal is to keep this kid from having, at seventeen, a record -- so he has to check the 'yes' box every time he applies for a job." The case was eventually dismissed, and the arrest was expunged from the young man's record. Young didn't take a nickel.

"His presence is pretty well known around there," says Ron McVicar, a 22-year-old employee at the Blockbuster on Delmar. "When someone needs it, he'll help."

McVicar has obtained free legal counsel from Young, who also helped him out of a personal jam.

"I was in a bad situation with a former roommate, and I needed to find somewhere else to stay," McVicar explains. "Chris had an extra room, so he put me up. I wouldn't have been able to stay in St. Louis if it weren't for him."

Tucker Booth, a 25-year-old rapper, says Young recently assisted him in beating an assault charge. (Booth -- and his run-in with the law -- was featured in the Riverfront Times' December 8 cover story, "Bad 2 Tha Bone.") He says Young billed him "much less than half" of what other lawyers quoted him.

"I really don't make the age distinctions most people make," Young says. "I think people are who they are when they mature. For some people, that's seventeen. For some people, that's fifteen. For some people -- never."