Last Friday was a dream come true for nine Harvard Law School (HLS) students who learned that they had received the Skadden Fellowship—a grant that supports legal projects aimed at helping disadvantaged people—making them the largest group of fellows HLS has seen.
“This fellowship is great because it basically allows you to design your own dream job and somebody gives you the funding to do it,” said Nisha S. Agarwal ’00, a third-year HLS student and newly named fellow.
Awarded to 27 recipients this year, the two-year Skadden Fellowship is granted by the law firm Skadden, Arps. Applicants, who must be recent law school graduates or judicial clerks, are asked to design public interests projects, and the fellowship funds the winning selections.
Almost two decades old, the Skadden Fellowship Program seeks to provide civil legal services to disadvantaged people, said Susan B. Plum, the program’s founding director.
Previously, the Fellowship has funded the public-interest aspirations of attorneys from top law schools around the country.
“It’s just very gratifying that such exceptionally well educated people want to work with the poorest people in the world,” Plum said. “It’s war on the poor, it’s war on the immigrants, it’s war on all of those who are the have-nots.”
The fellows—who were chosen from 165 applicants, 16 of whom were from HLS—said they cherish the opportunity to pursue their projects. Their legal services will target areas including health care, elder law, and predatory lending.
Agarwal said she turned to law school—and public interest law—after researching community development in Harlem.
“When I was there, a lot of people I was interviewing with were dealing with eviction and other concerns,” she said. “For me it was frustrating just researching those issues and not being able to help in a meaningful sort of way.”
Agarwal said she will work on a healthcare project for the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
“One of the things I found in my research was such a strong relationship between poor-quality housing and health outcomes,” Agarwal said.
Jessica J. Myers, a new fellow and a third-year law student, said she plans to serve as the go-to person for elder law issues at the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands. She will also work more generally with social workers, government agencies, and non-profit organization to address issues that affect seniors.
Myers said her work in public-interest law arises from the value she places on volunteer work.
“The idea is that you should try to leave at least your part of the world better than the way you found it,” Myers said.
The fellows’ legal expertise will reach different locales and social sectors.
Judith A. Murciano, who is director of fellowships for the HLS office of public interest advising, praises the diversity of the group.
“The students themselves are able to communicate with their clients in not only different languages but different skill sets,” said Murciano, who is Leverett House’s public service tutor as well as the assistant senior tutor for fellowships.
She said she foresees a mutual exchange of expertise and experience between the new fellows and the environments in which they will be working.
“I deeply appreciate that the HLS graduates will both be contributing to the communities but also the communities will shape the graduates,” she said.
HLS Dean Elena Kagan said she believes the fellows reflect a zeal for public service she has tried to encourage.
“I think that students are demonstrating that they hear that message,” Kagan said. “They really understand public service as being an integral part of the legal profession.”
Kagan serves on the Fellowship Program’s board of trustees, but said that she is never asked to review applicants from HLS.
Last year’s HLS graduates were the first to graduate under the new pro-bono requirement. According to Kagan, last year’s graduates completed 10 times the required pro-bono hours.
In fact, Kagan said that Charlotte Sanders, a fellow who graduated last year, had completed the most number of pro-bono hours in her class.
Plum said HLS is strong in nurturing a community committed to public interest, saying that the program would like to spread out the fellowships—but that Harvard applicants are too good to turn down.
According to Plum, “Harvard students are just so profoundly advantaged...that they get access to a network of real stars in the public-interest community who can advise them on this process, and it helps enormously.”
—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.