By Andrew Cohen
For many law students, the road to a career in public-interest law is laden with financial potholes. For Alesdair Ittelson ’12 and Yanin Senachai ’12, however, that path has become notably smoother after being named Skadden Fellows.
The two-year fellowships fund graduating law students who seek to begin their careers providing legal services to the poor, elderly, and disabled, as well as victims of civil and human rights abuses. Since the program’s 1988 launch by the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, nearly 90 percent of the fellows have continued to practice public-interest or public-sector law.
Ittelson and Senachai will start their fellowships in fall 2012. They went through multiple interviews before being chosen among this year’s 28 fellows—out of more than 200 applicants.
Working at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, Ittelson will advocate for youth who experience harassment or discrimination in rural and low-income schools because of real or perceived LGBT status.
“It’s a great opportunity because there’s no one in that region specifically dedicated to representing LGBT kids in schools,” Ittelson said. “This isn’t about changing people’s minds. It’s about making people see that a supportive educational environment for all students includes the protection of LGBT students.”
The president of LGBT organizations in high school and college, Ittelson worked on school cases for Lamba Legal in New York this past summer. His new fellowship tasks include grassroots organizing in Mississipi and Alabama, creating a “Know Your Rights” campaign for students and administrators, identifying schools with problematic policies—and suing schools that refuse to change them.
“I’ll be working in some faith-based communities, and I know that poses special challenges,” Ittelson said, after having worked on LGBT issues at a religious undergraduate school. “Alabama still has a statute mandating that if you teach sex education, you have to say homosexuality is against the moral character of the state.”
Much like Ittelson, Senachai is anxious to help address a glaring need. For her fellowship at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) in Los Angeles, she will represent Thai immigrant low-wage workers to combat wage theft, trafficking, and other workplace exploitation.
“There are very few legal services for Thais in Los Angeles, even though it has the largest Thai community in the U.S.,” Senachai said. “I’m Thai, I speak Thai, and I really wanted to do something that would address this issue that continues to victimize my community.”
Senachai will spend most of her time providing direct civil representation of Thai workers in the Los Angeles area, expanding on work she began last summer. Her fellowship also has a component for community education and policy advocacy.
Senachai will collaborate with APALC’S new group of Thai-speaking staff members and assist with its newly added Thai language hotline. She says the organization has received numerous calls from low-wage workers who were trafficked into the U.S. through abuse of various guest worker programs. Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed one of the largest human trafficking suits in history, which involved about 200 Thai immigrants.
“I look forward to notifying workers of their rights and letting them know that even though the economy is in flux, they’re still entitled to at least minimum wage,” Senachai said. “APALC has a strong history of representing aggrieved workers, pushing hard for corporate accountability, and promoting remedies for trafficking victims. I’m excited to do my part.”