Taking On the Legal Battles of Those in Need


Five years ago Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom--the nation’s third-largest law firm--celebrated its 40th birthday by creating a $10-million fellowship program for aspiring public-interest lawyers.

The “legal Peace Corps” would assist the poor and disenfranchised.

“We wanted to make some contribution back to the world,” says Richard Volpert, a senior partner in Skadden’s Los Angeles office.


The Skadden Fellows, who design their own projects, have made a wide range of contributions, as the following profiles demonstrate:

Irma Rodriguez: Language Rights

“We want to develop an equitable distribution of resources.”

There was one sharply defined moment when Irma Rodriguez knew she would become a lawyer. It happened when she was 11 and her Mexican immigrant father, needing to consult an attorney about an on-the-job injury, took Irma along to translate.

Impressed with the attorney’s power, Rodriguez made up her mind on the spot to become a lawyer.

“I remember the lawyer telling me, ‘You’re such a good interpreter. You should come back and work for us as an interpreter,’ ” Rodriguez says. “I got mad and said, ‘If I come back, it’ll be as a lawyer.’ ”

Rodriguez, 27, has made good on her vow. As a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles, she is running a comprehensive language rights project.

Since last fall, she has been embroiled in “impact litigation”--high-profile class-action lawsuits on issues like bilingual education, bilingual ballots and English-only rules in the workplace. “I just feel deep down in my heart this is so important.”

Rodriguez’s passion for the subject is rooted in her upbringing in Oxnard. The second-oldest of five children, she was expected to translate for her parents, neither of whom ever became comfortable speaking English.

As a teen-ager she resented them for speaking only Spanish, but now she realizes that their failure to speak English wasn’t for lack of trying.

“We have a responsibility to try to communicate in English as much as possible,” Rodriguez says. But slots in English-as-a-second-language classes are comparatively few, and the demands of making a living and raising a family leave little time to master a new tongue.

Rodriguez, who earned undergraduate and law degrees at UC Berkeley and received a master’s in public policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, knows the idea of spending more money for interpreters and bilingual education may not be popular with some.

“We want to work with folks,” she says. “We want to develop an equitable distribution of resources.”

Luke Williams: Community Relations

“There is a real need to do some bridge work.”

In his 18 months as a Skadden-funded lawyer for El Rescate Legal Services, a program targeting Central American refugees in Los Angeles, Luke Williams has visited with Salvadoran labor organizers, helped victims of a money order company bankruptcy and worked to build links between the African-American and Latino communities.

“There aren’t many other fellowships that allow you to write your own job description,” Williams says of the Skadden program.

The 30-year-old Los Angeles native has a long-standing commitment to service. After graduating from USC with a degree in political science and economics, Williams earned joint degrees in law and government administration from the University of Pennsylvania.

He then spent three years in the Philippines with the Peace Corps, a posting that required him to learn Ilonggo. But it was Williams’ high school and college Spanish that came in handy when he went to work for the Pico Union-based El Rescate (The Rescue) in 1991.

He found himself traveling frequently to Guatemala and El Salvador to document repressive treatment of labor organizers. One man Williams worked with closely was later assassinated.

El Rescate has been trying to persuade the U.S. government to withhold most-favored-nation trade status from countries that deny basic workers’ rights, Williams explains. The organization hopes to force policy changes that would allow Salvadoran refugees to return home without fear of persecution.

Williams also found himself helping poor African-Americans and Latinos when the General Money Order Co. declared bankruptcy in December, 1991. With more than a million people affected, “it was a real tragedy; we were just swamped,” he says.

In the aftermath of the L.A. riots, Williams helped set up a small convenience store jointly owned by African-Americans and Latinos to help heal divisions between the two communities.

Williams since has devoted much of his time to visiting housing projects and inner-city schools, where he gets people to focus on what different racial and ethnic groups have in common.

“In some housing projects, the tensions are so high, people are ready to kill each other,” he says. “There is a real need to do some bridge work.”

Heather Kendall: Tribal Rights

“What we’re really talking about is cultural survival.”

Heather Kendall fully expects the legal work she has undertaken as a Skadden Fellow to take her before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 37-year-old Harvard law graduate is working for Alaska Legal Services and the Native American Rights Foundation to force the state of Alaska and the federal government to recognize the tribal sovereignty of 80,000 Alaskan Indians, Aleuts and Eskimo, about three-quarters of whom live in 250 isolated villages.

Unlike the situation in the Lower 48 States, where 19th-Century federal treaties spelled out each tribe’s right to govern itself and exercise autonomy from state authority, the first federal legislation to recognize aboriginal use of the land was the 1971 Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act.

Alaska claims that the act, which turned over 44 million acres to 13 native-owned corporations, extinguished tribal sovereignty rights. One result: the state does not recognize adoptions and other actions taken by tribal courts.

“What we’re really talking about is cultural survival,” says Kendall, a Denaina Indian. “They have to be able to create tribal law as it applies to their people. This is an inherent right that goes back to the founding of this country.”

Born and raised in Fairbanks, Kendall homesteaded in the bush and worked as a laborer on the Alaskan Pipeline before going to the University of Alaska and then to Harvard Law School. She’s working with other native advocates to develop a coordinated legal strategy.

“These cases are extremely important,” Kendall says. “One bad case can ruin it for everybody.”

Theodore Wang: Civil Rights

“The law has continued to create . . . barriers.”

Theodore Wang remains committed to the idea of affirmative action at a time when the very concept has gotten a bad name.

As a full-time staff attorney for The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights for the San Francisco Bay Area, Wang helps draft affirmative action plans for municipalities that will withstand court challenges.

“There have been a lot of bad decisions by the Supreme Court that limit a city’s ability to develop an affirmative action program,” Wang says. “The law has continued to create all these barriers that limit the ability to remedy the effects of past discrimination.”

Wang, 29, has a firsthand knowledge of the subject.

When he was 8 he emigrated with his parents from Taiwan, eventually settling in Portland, Ore., where there were “very few” minorities.

“There was an incident when I was 12 years old where we had a burning cross on our lawn,” Wang recalls. “There’s an element in our society that’s very resistant to integration.”

Wang went on to attend Reed College and Yale Law School. When he started with The Lawyers’ Committee on his Skadden Fellowship in the fall of 1990, he decided to focus on affirmative action and voting rights issues.

One project was the registration of San Francisco jail inmates, intended to demonstrate that the right to vote does not disappear with a criminal conviction.

Wang has also joined in lawsuits to force California cities to elect council members by districts, arguing that the old system of at-large balloting tends to exclude minorities.

Cathy Ruckelshaus: Immigrant Rights

“There were all these workers . . . who had absolutely no legal recourse.”

Cathy Ruckelshaus spent her stint as as Skadden Fellow providing legal services to non-union immigrant workers in the South Bay area of San Francisco.

Her clients fell into two primary categories, she recalls: mostly Asian women working in Silicon Valley electronics plants and Latino agricultural workers in southern Santa Clara County. “There were all these workers down there who had absolutely no legal recourse,” says Ruckelshaus, a member of the first Skadden class in 1989.

She set up a clinic staffed by law student volunteers from Stanford University and the University of Santa Clara that offered workers help dealing with a variety of legal problems, ranging from unemployment appeals and discrimination complaints to wage and hour violations filed with the state labor commission.

The focus was on helping people to represent themselves, but “we ended up referring some people to private attorneys if we didn’t think they could do it themselves and if they had a valid case.” The project was sponsored by the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco, which later hired Ruckelshaus, now 32, as a staff attorney.

The daughter of former Environmental Protection Agency chief William Ruckelshaus, she graduated from Princeton University and worked for nonprofit organizations in New York and Washington before attending Stanford’s law school.

Ken Zimmerman: Homeless Rights

“These were people who’d been most disadvantaged.”

Ken Zimmerman had just started his Skadden Fellowship as an advocate for homeless people with the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County in Oakland in fall, 1989, when the San Francisco earthquake flattened the single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs) where many of his clients lived on and off.

“When the earthquake hit, my target population quintupled,” the Harvard Law graduate says. “As a new lawyer, I was confronted with a field of problems that nobody knew anything about, including my superiors.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped in to help people left homeless by the quake, but Zimmerman says the agency adopted policies that left SRO residents out in the cold.

“These were people who’d been most disadvantaged,” he says. “They lost most of their possessions in the earthquake.”

Zimmerman and his colleagues protested to FEMA, then filed a lawsuit that netted a $23-million settlement resulting in the rebuilding of many of the SROs.

The next year, Zimmerman, now 32, took his expertise in housing law with him to the Legal Clinic for the Homeless in his his hometown of Washington. When his fellowship ended in fall, 1991, he took a job with the Housing Section of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

While he once had sued the federal government, Zimmerman now was a government lawyer, suing landlords, cities and other agencies to enforce the federal Fair Housing Act.

“I had an absolutely wonderful experience,” Zimmerman says of his Skadden days. “It was a rare opportunity to meet a group of very committed, bright, talented people.”