When the Skadden Foundation named its 2014 class of Skadden fellows in early December, no one was more surprised to earn a spot in the prestigious public interest law program than Sarah Hess. She is the first student from The John Marshall Law School in Chicago selected as a Skadden fellow — and the first from an unranked law school thus honored since 2010. She and 27 other fellows will receive financial support from Skadden for two years while they pursue public interest law projects of their own design following graduation.

“Skadden really heard me out,” she 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 it was a very conscious one, and a consistent aspect of what I was trying to do with public interest law. I think that really resonated with the selection committee.”

The odds are long for Skadden Fellowship applicants — the foundation receives approximately 250 applications each year for fewer than 30 spots. It helps to have a top law school on the ré sumé : Nearly seven of every 10 law students and judicial clerks chosen as fellows since the program’s creation in 1988 have held J.D.s from schools listed in U.S. News & World Report’s Top 10, and the vast majority of the remaining fellows hail from top 100 schools. Harvard and Yale law students alone account for nearly half of Skadden’s 2014 class of fellows, with the remaining 15 scattered across 14 other law schools — all of which are ranked except John Marshall.

Despite those odds, Hess wasn’t deterred from using her law degree to seek a fellowship that would help her improve the lives of low-income children and families. Her pitch struck a chord, said Susan Butler Plum, the Skadden Foundation director. “We thought in her interview that Sarah was focused, compassionate and committed to her clients, and she understood their needs.” The foundation aims each year to name a fellow from at least one law school that has never had one, and encourages students from all law schools to apply, Plum said. “When we see top students from schools that we have never funded before, we try to put them at the top of the list,” she said. “We are open to every school in America.”

OTHER END OF THE SPECTRUM

Highly ranked schools produce many applicants for the coveted fellowships. For instance, the six Harvard students selected for Skadden fellowships this year were among 37 who applied from Harvard Law School. In contrast, Hess was the only student from John Marshall to apply. John Marshall, the largest of Chicago’s six law schools, has 1,500 students. Close to a quarter of them are minorities, one of several factors that attracted Hess. She was accepted at several other law schools, but “John Marshall chose me,” Hess said. “They offered me a full scholarship based on my application, which emphasized public interest.”

Her dedication to public interest law has only grown since then. Next year, Hess will start a foundation-financed 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 sites that serve largely economically disadvantaged clients.

“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 needs, such as housing or public benefits problems or access to Medicaid, as well as guidance in cases of domestic violence. “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 start school. “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. That the work will be difficult doesn’t bother Hess, who was a professional ballet dancer and instructor for a dozen years before starting law school. The discipline and quest for perfection integral 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 [it] made me really refine my project and made me go as far down every path of research I was pursuing [as I could]. 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.