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More than twelve years ago, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, New York’s largest law firm, celebrated its 40th anniversary by creating a $10 million program for aspiring public-interest lawyers. The program set out to award 25 fellowships each year to recently graduated lawyers seeking to provide legal services to the poor. Since then, the program’s success has surprised even its strongest supporters. According to Foundation Director Susan Butler Plum, a full 90 percent of former Skadden Fellows have stayed in public interest. “Isn’t that marvelous?” said Robert C. Sheehan, Skadden’s executive partner, who explained that the purpose of the program was to “give back to the community.” Other members of the firm apparently agree: two years ago, Skadden reaffirmed its commitment to the program, extending it for another ten years. Of the program’s 306 alumni, 85 live in or around New York. The six profiles below give an idea of the wide range of contributions Skadden Fellows are making to help the poor. PUBLIC EDUCATION “I feel like I have the best job in New York City,” Robert Hughes confessed happily. Hughes is president of New Visions for Public Schools, which develops and runs privately funded educational programs throughout the New York City public school system. The organization’s flagship program is New Vision Schools, 40 small elementary and middle schools throughout the city. New Visions also has programs to improve library, literacy, technology and professional standards. Hughes’ commitment to education as “an engine for transformation of people’s lives” began at Stanford Law School. He was a 1990 Skadden Fellow with Advocates for Children of New York, representing a Latino parents group whose children were being rezoned out of a Bronx public school. He has not looked back since. “I think every child is basically sacred,” Hughes said, “and in every child there is extraordinary promise both in that child and for the world as a whole. “It is important to cultivate that promise regardless of the color of their skin or where they live,” he added. WORKERS RIGHTS Catherine Ruckelshaus speaks passionately about her new case at the New York-based National Employment Law Project (NELP). The case concerns grocery store delivery workers, she said, mostly French-speaking African immigrants who on average work 80 hours a week for $1 an hour. Last year, one of the workers, “a highly educated Senegalese man who reads Camus and Foucault,” brought the situation to NELP’s attention. The group filed a suit on behalf of some 1,000 workers against most of the major New York grocery store chains. Ruckelshaus, who was a 1989 Skadden Fellow with the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco, has been litigating on behalf of low-income workers since an internship at an employment law center while at Stanford Law School. “I realized that employment issues are much broader than I thought,” said Ruckelshaus, daughter of former Environmental Protection Agency chief William Ruckelshaus. “If you can’t keep or find a job, you’re going to be poor.” HOUSING RIGHTS In the fall of 1989, Kenneth Zimmerman was getting ready to start his Skadden Fellowship with the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County, representing the homeless of Oakland, California. Five days before he came to his new job, the San Francisco earthquake hit, flattening many of the single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) frequented on and off by Zimmerman’s clients. “After the earthquake hit, my target population quadrupled,” said the Harvard Law School graduate. The Federal Emergency Management Agency moved in to assist people left homeless by the quake. But, said Zimmerman, the agency fell short when it came to helping SRO residents. Zimmerman and his colleagues sued, negotiating a $23 million settlement to rebuild lost SRO housing. After his fellowship, Zimmerman spent the next eight years in government, ultimately serving as the third-highest-ranking official in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, directing HUD’s civil rights enforcement efforts. Today, Zimmerman is back in public interest as executive director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, a newly formed center devoted to legal issues of the poor. Voicing a common sentiment of former Skadden Fellows, Zimmerman said that without the fellowship, “I don’t think I would have been able to get into public interest work when I did.” HELPING IMMIGRANTS Terri Gerstein spent her 1995 Skadden Fellowship at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami, representing “victims of involuntary servitude.” Or in starker terms, as she says, “modern-day slavery.” One of her first cases involved a woman, Francesca Ekka, who was brought to the United States from India as a maid. For seven months, she worked long hours for no pay for a couple who beat and tortured her. The couple was ultimately prosecuted and jailed. Gerstein’s next case was no less horrifying, involving 14 Mexican women and girls who were forced to work as prostitutes for migrant farm workers — up to 130 men a week. The prostitution ring has since been broken up, and several of its members imprisoned. Not surprisingly, these cases got a lot of publicity. But Gerstein is careful to point out that immigrant workers are exploited in less dramatic ways, by means of long hours, low wages and poor working conditions. After her Skadden Fellowship and another from a private foundation, Gerstein moved to New York, where she is a lawyer with the Labor Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s office. “It’s like a snowball,” the Harvard Law School graduate said of her work. “Each new life experience adds another layer.” “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she added. HOMELESS ADVOCACY After graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in 1992, Kevin Ryan went to Covenant House New York as a Skadden Fellow, providing legal representation to homeless and runaway youth. Today, Ryan is still at it, although he has moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey, where he serves as the Director of the Youth Advocacy Center of Covenant House New Jersey. “It’s a largely invisible population,” Ryan said of his clients. “A lot of the time it’s hard to know when a kid has been thrown out of the house.” One of Ryan’s most gratifying achievements was his lobbying effort in last year’s passage of the New Jersey Homeless Youth Act, which allows children access to homeless shelters. Previously, children needed parental permission or a court order. But Ryan measures success for his clients in other ways as well. “Sometimes, it’s providing housing for the night,” said Ryan, “sometimes, it’s seeing them graduate from college.” COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT Margaret Barnette explained her commitment to community development with a twist on a familiar proverb. “There’s a saying that if you feed someone a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime,” she said. “I’d like people to start asking who owns the boat,” she said. Barnette is the Director of Member Services and General Counsel at the New York-based Community Development Venture Capital Alliance, facilitating investment in distressed communities. Projects range from a South Boston Meals on Wheels program that provides ethnic food to the housebound, to one that bridges the “digital divide” by offering phone and data services to small businesses in poor neighborhoods of Baltimore. The New York University Law School graduate said her 1996 Skadden Fellowship enabled her to get legal experience in community development that was otherwise unavailable to her. “It was really valuable in that way,” Barnette said. Like Barnette and the others, Skadden Fellows tend to find a niche for themselves that they stay with throughout their careers. Not only do 90 percent of Skadden Fellows stay in public interest, but even more impressively, said Plum, the program’s director, 100 percent of those are still working on the same issue they worked on as a fellow. “It’s a public interest law firm without walls,” she added.

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