Since the creation of the Skadden Fellowship in 1988, more than 700 law students and judicial clerks have received its financial support for two years as they pursue public-interest law projects of their own design.

Of those recipients, nearly 70 percent came from schools listed in the Top 10 by U.S. News & World Report; most of the remainder held J.D.s from schools listed in the Top 100.

But every once in awhile, the Skadden Fellowship Foundation selects someone from an unranked law school, as it did this year with Sarah Hess. She is the first student from the John Marshall Law School in Chicago to win the prestigious fellowship. In fact, 2010 was the last time a student from any unranked law school (in that case the Widener University School of Law) made the cut.

No one was more surprised than Hess by the December 6 announcement, given John Marshall’s lack of star power. “Absolutely, I thought about it all the time,” Hess said. “But I made a very conscious decision when I chose John Marshall. I knew that was going to be a factor in my pursuit of a career, but John Marshall chose me. They offered me a full scholarship based on my application, which emphasized public interest.” She also liked its emphasis on diversity and opportunity.

“Skadden really heard me out,” Hess said. “I guess that’s obvious because of my selection, but I emphasized in my application and my interview that the choice to go to John Marshall was a very conscious one and it was consistent aspect of what I was trying to do with public-interest law. I think that really resonated with the selection committee.”

The year’s 28 Skadden fellows hail from 13 law schools—seven of them from Yale Law School and six from Harvard Law School. Each fellow will be paid on par with the salary and benefits of the public-interest organization they join for the next two years.

Hess will start what is known as a medical-legal partnership through the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She will work with the Erie Family Health Center—a network of 13 health care sites that serve largely low-income clients. Doctors and staff are trained to ask patients about socioeconomic factors that can harm their health and that of their children.

“The idea is that families living below the poverty line generally have five unmet legal needs at any given time,” Hess said. “It’s basically a guarantee that any family living below the poverty line has at least one civil legal need.”

Hess will offer pro bono advice about any non-criminal or immigration-related legal need, from housing or public benefits problems to domestic violence or access to Medicaid. “It’s about securing opportunities for kids by making sure their health is not a barrier to success,” she said.

Hess has long been interested in childhood education, and the more research she did, the more she realized that many children face problems before they even set foot in a classroom. Those hardships and accompanying stress can severely impede their ability to learn, she said.

“Put a child in the best classroom with the best teacher, but if they don’t know where they are going to sleep that night, they’re not going to learn effectively,” she said.

Hess researched medical-legal partnerships and interviewed existing and former Skadden fellows before submitting her proposal.

She knows the work will be difficult, but that’s nothing new for Hess, who was a professional ballet dancer and instructor for a dozen years before starting law school. The discipline and quest for perfection central to ballet has proven useful, she said.

She sees her selection as a Skadden fellow as proof that dedication and hard work can trump law school pedigree when forging a legal career.

“If I chose to, I could have been discouraged,” Hess said. “But what it did was made me really refine my project and made me go as far down every path of research I was pursuing. I used it as a motivator. I think the moral is a simple one: You should never let people tell you something is impossible. You should use the warning as motivation to do a better job.”

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. For more of The National Law Journal’s law school coverage, visit: http://www.facebook.com/NLJLawSchools.