BY ADINA LEVINE
Eight Harvard Law School students received two-year Skadden fellowships for public interest, setting a record for the greatest number of law school students from a specific school to receive the fellowships in a given year.
“For our students, it’s really meaningful,” commented Alexa Shabecoff, director of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising. “They get to approach the organization that they’d really love to work for, and say ‘would you take me on for free, so I can work on a project that I design?’ They get to do what they’re passionate about.”
In 1992, Harvard boasted seven Skadden fellows and had six each in 1994, 1995, 1998 and 2003.
“Who wins in the end is not just Harvard students, but the bunch of communities who have students serving them,” asserted Shabecoff. “All Skadden fellows will emerge as well-trained and committed public interest lawyers who will do great work in different communities.”
Harvard Law School also holds the cumulative record: 75 Harvard graduates have received Skadden fellowships since the fund’s creation in 1988. New York University is second with 51.
“The purpose of the fellowship is to provide beginning attorneys opportunities to provide civil opportunities to the poor,” explained Susan Plum, founding director of the Skadden Fellowship Foundation.
The two-year fellowships provide a $37,500 salary for 28 students committed to public interest. Graduating law students and judicial clerks approach organizations of their choosing and create proposals before applying. The awarding of the fellowships is, according to Plum, “extremely competitive.”
“Students design their own dream job,” asserted Plum.
The eight Harvard students receiving this year’s fellowships include four ’04 graduates, as well as four judicial clerks. Their projects include improving housing for low-income tenants in Washinton, D.C. (Nicole De Sario ’03), representing children with special educational needs in Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts (Michael Gregory ’04), and working with Advancement Project to advocate on behalf of limited English proficient students (James Freeman ’03).
“I was interested in this fellowship because I felt I had to design my own project to do the work I wanted to do,” asserted Carrie Schneider, 3L, who will be working at the Greater Boston Institute at The Conservation Law Foundation attempting to increase public transportation for low income minority communities. “No one was hiring.”
The Skadden fellowship allows students to enter public interest fields that are otherwise unavailable because of financial restraints or required prior experience. For example, Melanca Clark ’02 will be working for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, a job which usually requires previous experience or training.
“There’s no way [without the Skadden fellowship] the LDF would have taken them straight out of law school,” said Shabecoff.
The Skadden fellowship advertises itself as not simply a two-year program, but an ongoing investment in promoting public interest law careers. In this regard, it has proven enormously successful, as almost 90% of Skadden fellows remain public interest lawyers, according to Shabecoff. Indeed, most of this year’s Skadden fellows plan on continuing their public interest work after the fellowships expire.
“My eventual goal as a lawyer is to create an organization for Korean workers that will combine both advocacy and organizing with legal representation,” said Steve Choi, 3L, who will be working with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education fund on a project involving the representation of low-wage Korean workers in the New York City area.
“I hope to continue in public interest work throughout my career,” Schneider said. “I always imagined I would end up somewhere like Montana, protecting wilderness land. I’m sure, like my time at Harvard, my time as a Skadden fellow will lead me to more exciting and unexpected work!”
Several students cited OPIA’s diligence as a critical element in the fellowship application process.
“OPIA was a Godsend!” exclaimed Brooke Richie ’04, who will be working with the Welfare Law Center in New York next year, concentrating on protecting low income workers’ access to education and training programs. “Having one place with so many resources at my disposal was extremely helpful. The people – Alexa [Shabecoff] and Judy [Murciano] especially – made finding my direction and figuring out how to do what I wanted to do so much easier than I believed it could be. They were always available, and more often than not, knew the questions that I needed to ask before I did.”
“I can think of no other school that has any department comparable to ours,” seconded Choi.
While acknowledging its expanding efforts to promote public service, OPIA is quick to give credit to the students themselves.
“We just get great raw material here,” observed Shabecoff. “The students who come here are really fabulous. And ultimately it’s how fabulous they are that helps them do really well.”
Two weeks ago, Dean Kagan held a reception in honor of the Skadden fellowship winners, flying in the four clerks for a banquet at the Faculty Club.
“Public interest was increasing even before Dean Kagan came into her position, but she has certainly made it easier because of her enthusiasm,” commented Shabecoff. “She has made students realize that public interest is valued and encouraged, and she is doing all she can to convey that message by speaking about it every time she speaks.”