Skadden fellows on the job for the needy

By Melissa Birks

At 24, Kathleen Rubenstein has already worked for organizations devoted to civil rights, affordable housing, and legal advocacy for low-income people. In fact, she’s worked since age 14, when she landed her first job as a check-out girl at a flower shop.

This fall, the third-year University of Chicago Law School student will pursue her passion in public advocacy by, among other things, helping Illinois residents get jobs.

And she’ll do it courtesy of a highly competitive, nationwide fellowship.

Kathleen is among 27 law school graduates and judicial clerks who received a 2010 Skadden Fellowship, a program established in 1988 through Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. When she reports to work at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law this fall, she’ll join three other Skadden fellows working for Chicago-area organizations: Heather Scheiwe (Northwestern), who will work for the Center for Conflict Resolution/Resolution Systems Institute; Lauren Lowe (Vanderbilt), at Equip for Equality; and Robert Silverman (Yale), at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest.

Fellows come from the nation’s top law schools and are selected based not only on their academic performance but the quality of their project, which they design with the organization that they plan to work for through the two-year fellowship. Like other fellows, Kathleen went through a rigorous application process that started last fall and included an interview with the foundation’s director and its Advisory Committee. After the interviews, the foundation’s trustees narrowed the list of 50 semi-finalists to the finalists.

Fellows devote two years of their lives to, as the Skadden Fellowship Foundation says, “providing legal services to the poor (including the working poor), the elderly, the homeless and the disabled, as well as those deprived of their civil or human rights.”

Skadden provides each fellow with a salary and pays all fringe benefits that an employee of the sponsoring organization would earn. According to the foundation, nearly 90 percent of Skadden fellows — numbering 591, with the 2010 class — have remained in public interest or public sector work since the program began.

Kathleen certainly hopes to follow that path.

“I’ve always been interested in public interest,” says the Washington, D.C. native, who ascribes at least some inspiration for her vocation to growing up in a liberal, Jewish family that put an emphasis on public service.

At the Sargent Shriver center, Kathleen expects to help low-income Illinois residents secure jobs, education, and training. She may, for instance, play a role in strengthening policies that encourage employers to hire residents in HUD housing projects or work with community colleges’ job placement offices.

“We won’t be able to fix everything in two years,” Kathleen says. She recalls a stint at the Urban Institute, where “they ask big questions and look for big answers. It’s probably satisfying when you can change big policy; what I think I want is to combine that with individual advocacy, where you might help one person, but you not might not stem the tide.”

“What I found appealing about the Sargent Shriver center,” she adds, “is that they combine legal and policy advocacy.”

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