Skadden Arps Meagher & Flom’s over three-decade tradition of funding public interest legal work will allow Skadden Fellows for 2020 to pursue projects on topics ranging from immigration to disability rights and beyond.

Outside of its typical work as an elite Big Law firm, Skadden funds a corps of public interest lawyers through the Skadden Fellowship Foundation, which recently announced more than two dozen fellows for the coming year who will receive two-year fellowships.

Skadden began the fellowships in 1988 to commemorate the firm’s 40th anniversary. Its 2020 scholars will spend two years at nonprofit organizations which help low-income people with housing, education, immigration and other legal services that would otherwise be out of reach.

The addition of the 28 recipients brings Skadden’s total to 877 fellows in just over three decades, said Kathleen Rubenstein, the Skadden Foundation’s executive director. In honor of Skadden’s 70th anniversary last year, the firm extended the program another decade.

The fellowship can be a boost to a public service career and a connection to a broad-based network of attorneys working in public interest law. Some 90 percent of past recipients remain in the public sector, including working as judges, professors, government officials, and nonprofit founders, according to Skadden data.

Graduating law students and judicial clerks who apply come up with their own projects and find sponsoring organizations who are willing to work with them. Applications fell off in recent years from a high of 600 applicants at the start of the program decades ago as rising law school costs have factored into legal career choices.

“This year there were some 200 applicants, in the same range as last year, and they are very diverse geographically,” Rubenstein said. “Our latest group will be working in 20 cities around the country, many bringing their experiences back to their own communities.”

Helping Immigrants

One of them is Juan Bedoya, 25, who after he receives his law degree from New York University School of Law next spring, will return to Boston to work with immigrants. He lived in the Boston area while attending Harvard University as an undergraduate, and became aware of students who are undocumented, which leaves them vulnerable to an array of legal uncertainties.

He wanted to help them in a comprehensive way so instead of following his initial career choice—which was to be a chef— he chose law school.

“I want to try a holistic approach to help immigrants. It’s not just deportation that they face but there are many other problems such as domestic violence,” he said.

In Boston, he will work with the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project to provide a range of legal services for immigrants, including child welfare, education, housing, and public benefits.

Bedoya said his commitment to immigrants grew out of his own family’s experience.

“My parents immigrated here from Columbia and their process of getting legalized has been an ever-present thing in my life,” he said.

Iva Velickovic, a Yale Law School student, was also inspired by her family’s background to work on immigration issues. Her parents arrived from Serbia in 1997 when she was 5 years old.

“As a little girl when I came here, I remember everyone being nice to me,” she said. She began volunteering to help immigrants when she was an undergraduate at Yale.

“There was some overlap between being an immigrant and making sure your parents’ move was worth it,” said Velickovic, 27. “I wanted to give back to the community.”

She’ll be working in Denver, at the Rocky Mountain Immigration Advocacy Network. She will represent immigrants to help them win the legal status that is a pathway to lawful permanent residence for older teenagers who qualify as having been abused, abandoned, or neglected by their parents.

Denver has fewer immigration attorneys than big, coastal cities, she said.

Her Skadden project is aimed at clearing some of the large backlog for immigrants seeking status as juveniles, which is a path to a green card. The backlog is caused by discrepancies between federal law and some state laws.

Like other fellows, she will receive a two-year salary stipend, certain fringe benefits, and access to a law school loan repayment program, which is available for those who qualify.

Student Assistance

Emily Wilson, who will graduate from William & Mary Law School next spring, shaped her own project after her experiences as a former math teacher. When she saw that many children with disabilities do not always receive legally required assistance to transition to adult living, she decided to earn a law degree to help.

Her project will be under the auspices of Equip for Equality, in Chicago, where she will represent students with disabilities between 14 and ½ to 22 -years-old obtain receive planning and services so they can transition to independent living, education, and employment. Illinois has nearly 20,000 developmentally disabled people on its wait list for such assistance, according to state data.

Her inspiration? Her Mom, a longtime special education teacher north of Atlanta.

“I was raised around this all my life,” said Wilson. “Students don’t always get what they are entitled to and it affects their lives and their ability to get a job.”