BY ERIN ARCHERD
Harvard Law students made another impressive finish in this year’s Skadden Fellowship awards. Six students, 3Ls Liz Cho, Lam Ho, Dan Klaff, Grace Spulak, and Brandon Weiss, and recent graduate Dan Farbman, ’07, received the prestigious public interest fellowship, which provides a $46,000 yearly salary plus benefits, and which is renewable for a second year. The fellowship is extremely competitive, with fewer than 60 awarded each year, but Harvard students have traditionally earned a large number. Like last year, Harvard students were awarded more Skadden Fellowships than students at any other school. By comparison, NYU students received 3, as did UCLA, Stanford, and the University of Michigan.
Liz Cho, who transferred to HLS in part to take advantage of Harvard’s Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising, was pleasantly surprised to have been given an award to work with Haitian children through the Legal Services Center’s Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative.Although she had worked at several public service organization in the 4 years between earning her undergraduate degree and beginning law school – including a Jane Addams-Andrew Carnegie Fellowship at Indiana University, two years at the Charles Steward Mott Foundation in its Pathways Out of Poverty section, and work at the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children – Cho credited Harvard with giving her the edge in earning her fellowship.
“I really think being a Harvard helped me get this,” said Cho. “Harvard has a really deep commitment to public interest work and helping people all the way and really making sure that they can do it.”Cho will be working in collaboration with Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC) in developing ties with the Haitian immigrant community. Her project focuses on representing Haitian students at special education meetings at schools, providing legal rights education to Haitian families, and using the information she gains about the community to form policy initiatives.Dan Farbman will work with the Advancement Project out of Washington, DC, doing community advocacy and impact litigation to advance community-led education campaigns promoting quality public education and college access to students of color in the Baltimore City and Miami public school systems.
Dan Klaff, an Editor-in-Chief for CR-CL who took the employment civil rights clinical and worked with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, will be doing advocacy for residents of federally subsidized housing in Chicago through Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI). His project works to expand affordable housing in the suburbs where many low-income people are able to find jobs.
“We hope to enforce existing federal and state rights of first refusal for low-income families living in publicly funded affordable housing which is set for development,” explained Klaff. “We also hope to work with local governments to modernize building codes to make upgrading existing affordable housing more development friendly. Finally, we hope to work with local government to put into place affordable housing ordinances which will require new developments to include a certain percentage of affordable housing.”Lam Ho will be starting a community legal clinic for families in North Lawndale, Chicago. Based out of a community arts center, it will be about providing legal services but also having the community become involved in creating and developing the clinic. Ho stressed that he doesn’t want to start his clinic with certain issue areas already in mind, but tailor its services to the clients’ needs.
“I will be working with community leaders and activists to formulate how the center will operate, and the clinic will also have an advisory board consisting of the youths of the community, which will help me identify the needs of the community and how they should be addressed,” explained Ho.
New Mexico native Grace Spulak worked at Pegasus Legal Services during her 1L summer and her project will focus on representing pregnant teens in areas such as domestic violence, custody, and child support, as well as access to education, health care, housing, child care, and benefits. “Projects focusing on pregnant and parenting teens are extremely important in New Mexico at this time because New Mexico has the nation’s third highest teen pregnancy rate and one of the nation’s highest poverty rates which also significantly affects the ability of these teens to access care and services for themselves and their children,” said Spulak. “The issue of pregnant and parenting teens is also personally important to me as I have several friends who had children while in high school and watched them struggle to try and remain in school while caring for their children.”Here at the law school, Spulak has been active in the Human Rights Program and the Child Advocacy Program, and has done clinicals for both. During the Winter Term, she is working at the Southwest Women’s Law Center in Albuquerque on a project involving access to reproductive health care for immigrant women.
“My clinical and summer work has both given me opportunities to interact with children and youth and gain an understanding of the issues they face and their perspectives, as well as giving me an understanding of areas (such as representation for pregnant and parenting teens) where there are needs for additional legal advocacy,” said Spulak.Brandon Weiss will help preserve affordable housing stock with Public Counsel in Los Angeles. Weiss is a member of the Tenant Advocacy Project, has worked in the Housing Unit of Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services as well as the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty. He holds a joint degree with the Kennedy School of Government where he focused on affordable housing and community development. His project involves tenant/owner education and enforcement of tenant notice rights, and trying to link his clients with favorable sources of debt and tax credit equity to preserve housing affordability.
“Thousands of subsidized apartment units are currently in danger of being lost as affordability restrictions expire and rents spike up to market-rates” said Weiss. “This is a problem cities are facing across the country, but is particularly acute in Los Angeles where a minimum-wage worker would have to work three full-time jobs to afford a modest apartment.”
Many students credited OPIA Fellowship Director Judy Murciano as a pivotal part of the application process, reading application essays multiple times and scheduling extra appointments on weekends to help students practice their interview. Spulak called her “instrumental.” Cho was struck by the attention Murciano paid to each applicant.
“I was touched by and grateful for [Judy’s] help,” said Cho. “When we found out we had interviews, she emailed us and I met with her on a Saturday and she gave me an hour of her time to prepare me. There’s not that many people who would have done that.”
“It’s almost as if she lives and breathes with us throughout the entire process,” said Ho. “She called, met, or e-mailed me late nights, on weekends to help me put the application together. I can’t describe adequately how much passion, dedication, and energy she offered to me.”Klaff attributed much of Harvard’s Skadden Fellowship success to Murciano.
“I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how much her guidance and encouragement meant to me in this process,” he said. “Judy went out of her way to help with the organization selection, application process, and interview. Judy is the reason HLS students do so well in the Skadden Fellowship process each year.”Klaff wasn’t sure where what project he wanted to undertake, but a recommendation from Murciano put him in touch with Adam Gross, a former Skadden Fellow from the University of Chicago, who helped him craft a project with BPI in Chicago.
“[Adam and I] really hit it off and after talking about, we both decided it would be a good idea for me to apply with them for a Skadden,” said Klaff. “While I was interested in the housing and education focus on the org
anization, I hadn’t done any particular work in that area before and so Adam and I worked together to craft a project that would fit their needs as well as my desires.”
Murciano was even willing to miss the Red Sox in order to make time for fellowship applicants.
“One prior Skadden Fellow’s advice to me was, ‘Do whatever Judy tells you to do.'” explained Weiss. “This advice proved golden as she spent hours upon hours answering my questions, offering her advice, reading my essays, and even staying late into the night on a Friday night (and foregoing watching the Red Sox play in the first game of the American League Championship Series) to do a mock interview with me.”
All of the fellowship winners emphasized how many resources HLS has for those who want to do public interest law, and many urged students not to feel tied to the law firm path.
“I think people need to be more aware that there are resources available for people to do public interest work, and that public interest work can not only be very rewarding, but can also teach you an immense amount about the law and how to use the law creatively,” Spulak commented.
Cho knew after working at a law firm over the summer that a law firm “wasn’t going to work for her.” She framed her decision to work in the public interest sector as choosing a job that she finds emotionally fulfilling.
“Some people at firms find amazing mentors, but the way firms are structured with billable hours, it’s hard to focus on people being themselves without thinking about fitting in…I feel really excited to work with the people at the LSC. It’s exciting that the bottom line of what we’re doing is making someone’s life better every single day.”
Cho advised students to focus on the nature of their relationships with their co-workers and clients. Even if student start at a law firm, she thought they should take stock of how their jobs make them feel.
“How will their work affect them personally and what relationships will they create through their work?,” Cho asked. “Do those relationships make them feel cared for, do they make them happy and give them a sense of purpose? For those whom it doesn’t feel perfect, they should think about doing something else.”
Ho stressed the need to feel inspired by one’s work, particularly in light of relative pay differences and job stability compared to working in the private sector, and the bureaucratic and political limitation public sector attorneys may face.
“You have to be able inspire yourself every morning to face these challenges,” said Ho. “Being able to look at your work and realize that you love it, that you are inspired by it, that’s what keeps you going.”
He sees thinking unconventionally as a key to reform work.
“As lawyers we can become too conditioned to being bound by rules and conventions, but as public interest lawyers, we must recognize the status quo is not acceptable; there’s just too much wrong with our society and justice system,” he said. “Thus, in order for us to change and reform, we must see situations in ways that will push the boundaries of what is for what can be.”
Klaff concluded that students should take a broad focus in looking for public interest work.
“I would suggest that they think broadly about the public interest work they are willing to do,” said Klaff. “With such a broad focus, it becomes possible to find the organization and job where you can best most effective while gaining valuable experience for yourself.”
Weiss had the simplest advice for students considering public interest work after law school.
“Go for it,” said Weiss. “I am extremely excited about what I’ll be doing in the years right after law school – what more could you ask for as an HLS student?”