Skadden Arps Meagher & Flom decided in 1988 on an unusual 40th birthday celebration—instead of a fancy dinner or party, the firm set aside $10 million to fund a fellowship for young lawyers who opt to work in public interest law.

Three decades later, the Skadden fellowship is still going strong and has reached 849 total recipients. The firm recently announced it would continue the program for at least another decade and named 28 new fellows for 2019.

“We wanted it to be the best and the brightest working for the poor,” Susan Plum, the Skadden Foundation’s executive director, told Bloomberg Law.

New Fellows

Plum said that candidates, who include graduate law students as well as certain judicial clerks and LLM degree holders, apply with a planned project and a sponsor for the public interest work they want to do. A fellowship carries a two-year salary stipend as well as law school loan repayment for those who qualify.

The rush of interest from the start included some 600 applicants for the initial two-year fellowship, Plum noted. The applicant numbers, like the overall number of law students nationally, have declined to 212 this year, but the process remains very competitive.

The fellowship allows some winners to help right injustices they have seen firsthand. Akilah Browne, a fourth-year evening student at Fordham University School of Law, is going to spend her fellowship working with low-income communities. The 28-year-old saw how her father, who always paid his $850 monthly rent on time for a Brooklyn apartment, still wound up being evicted.

“We lived there for more than 20 years, but he was the last renter standing in the way of our landlord converting his rent-regulated building and charging market prices,” she told Bloomberg Law.

“I’ve seen firsthand that affordable housing can be a source of stability, and fragility,” said Browne, who has worked as a coordinator for Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton’s pro-bono practice.

Following her graduation, she will be a fellow at the New Economy Project, to help with the legal work needed to create affordable and sustainable communities in New York City neighborhoods like the South Bronx and Washington Heights.

Educational Justice

Jason Pedraza, 29, who is attending New York University Law School, will be a fellow next year at the Education Law Center in Newark, N.J.

“I was raised by two strong women from Puerto Rico,” he told Bloomberg Law. “My mother got a college degree. There was always an emphasis on education and making a difference so I started as a summer intern in college helping kids with disabilities in Newark. Later I got a master’s degree in higher education while working full-time, but I decided I could do more with a law degree.

“Now, 10 years later, I’ll be coming full circle, working again in Newark where I will be representing students as the state expands access to pre-K to more low-income communities. This creates a need for legal services for these students to make sure that education really ends up providing social and economic equality.”

Legal assistance to students was a strong theme among the fellowship winners this year.

Kamala Buchanan, executive director of Harvard Law School student legal aid services, told Bloomberg Law she plans to spend her fellowship at Georgia Legal Services in Atlanta to represent students whose rights may be infringed by racially disparate treatment in public schools.

“Students of color are disciplined at higher rates, or subjected to more severe punishment,” said Buchanan, 24, who said she was drawn to defending students based on her own experiences growing up in California during public education funding cutbacks.

‘Powerful Tool’

Michaela Bland, also 24, set to graduate from the Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island, will be working with the Rhode Island Center for Justice, representing students from three schools during suspension proceedings.

“I want to build on research that’s already been done that Hispanic students of color are three times more likely to be suspended—and black students six times as likely to be suspended—for behaviors that are not dealt with that way for other students,” she told Bloomberg Law.

Students like Bland are aware they are joining a kind of rarefied club of public interest advocates, a spirit Skadden fosters by holding an annual gathering of the incoming class, along with the two previous fellows groups. Skadden also holds regional reunion symposiums and other events to keep the fellows in touch.

“To be part of the Skadden network is the most powerful tool,” said Bland. “I know wherever I am, I will have this support system.”