The gulf between wanting a career in public interest law and achieving a career in public interest law can be hard to navigate. By being named 2008 Skadden Fellows, that journey has become easier for Rachael Langston ’08 and Harini Raghupathi ’07.
The Skadden Fellowship Foundation funds two-year fellowships for graduating law students who wish to make a career of providing legal services to the poor, elderly, homeless, disabled, and those deprived of their civil or human rights. To apply for the fellowship, Langston and Raghupathi had to secure a potential job and design a work program with a sponsoring public interest organization.
This fall, both will return to the San Francisco organizations where they interned while students at Berkeley Law. Langston rejoins the Legal Aid Society’s Employment Law Center to focus on reasonable accommodation issues for disabled workers and care-givers. Raghupathi heads back to the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, where she will address delays in naturalization adjudications for low-income, legal permanent residents.
Fellows are selected based on their qualifications and the demonstrated effectiveness of their sponsoring organization. Langston and Raghupathi went through multiple interviews and cuts before being chosen among this year’s 40 Fellows. Skadden will pay their salaries and all fringe benefits.
Since the program started in 1988, almost 90 percent of the Fellows have remained in public interest or public sector work—and everyone among that 90 percent is working on the same issue they started with.
Making Reasonable Accommodation More Reasonable
Born with a congenital birth defect that affects bone, tissue and femur development, Langston has endured eye, hernia, back, and feet surgery. She wears a prosthesis on her left leg and uses forearm crutches to help her walk, and her personal experience with disability-related issues has fueled a desire to aid others who confront obstacles to accessibility in the workplace and elsewhere.
Come September, Langston will push for the enforcement of reasonable accommodation legislation through community education and litigation, and focus on expanding its scope.
“Working parents who have a disabled child or who need to look after elderly parents face an ongoing burden,” Langston says. “When I was younger, my mom had to take care of many things surrounding my disability. Her employer let her work from home part-time, but many employers are resistant to make that kind of accommodation.”
A native of Lubbock, Texas, Langston is returning home this summer to immerse herself in a self-study program for the California Bar Exam. She looks forward to slaying that task, returning to the Bay Area, and renewing ties at the Legal Aid Society.
“I knew the people, I knew the organization, and I knew I was interested in working with them again,” Langston says. “I feel really fortunate to follow through on what I came to law school for, and to work on issues that are important to so many people.”
Fighting for Shorter Delays, More Stability
Raghupathi comes from “a family full of immigrants” and went to law school intent on pursuing immigration work. Still, she was admittedly skeptical before her semester at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.
“I had done more direct service work with clients,” says Raghupathi, citing experience with the California Asylum Representation Clinic, the Domestic Violence Practicum, and a summer job helping incarcerated women receive better health care. Meanwhile, the ACLU was busy with a lawsuit charging former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other military leaders with responsibility for the torture and abuse of detainees.
“That was eye-opening,” says Raghupathi, now living in Columbus, Ohio and clerking for Judge R. Guy Cole, Jr. on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. “Even though the attorneys knew it was probably a losing battle, legally and morally they showed why it was important to wage that battle. It was a great lesson on the importance of balancing realism and idealism.”
Ragupathi will seek that balance when she returns to the ACLU—which asserts that many immigrants who have met their citizenship requirements are illegally left in limbo due to the slow processing of FBI background checks. If no action is taken on an application for naturalization in 180 days, such residents may go to federal court and force the Department of Homeland Security to issue a decision.
“After 9/11, Homeland Security instituted a mandatory, extensive background check for citizenship,” Raghupathi says. “There are indications these checks are racially motivated, particularly aimed at those with a Muslim or South Asian heritage. It’s a growing problem, and for immigrants awaiting that decision the delay negatively affects many parts of their lives.”
— By Andrew Cohen