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Posted Dec. 16, 2008

Vallas Named Skadden Fellow

Vallas

Third-year student Rebecca Vallas was recently named to the 2009 list of Skadden Fellows, the most prestigious public service fellowship for recent law school graduates.

Through the program, founded by law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Vallas will receive an annual salary with benefits to work on a program of her own design at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which offers legal assistance to low-income Philadelphians who cannot afford legal counsel.

"My colleagues and I are incredibly proud of Becca and thrilled that her profound dedication to the public interest and her outstanding academic performance were recognized by one of the most competitive public interest fellowship programs," said Yared Getachew, director of the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center. "As the Public Interest Law Association’s president, Becca has worked tirelessly to promote public interest law at Virginia and to help her fellow law students in any way she can.  As a Skadden Fellow, I know that she will be a powerful advocate on behalf of the elderly and disabled clients of Community Legal Services, her host organization."

Vallas’ idea for the project came when she was working at Community Legal Services’ Elderly Law Project this summer, where she helped staff a hotline to answer questions about the organization’s recently settled Kaplan v. Chertoff, a national class action on behalf of all disabled and elderly refugees and asylum-seekers who were cut off from receiving Supplemental Security Income as they waited for citizenship status. From speaking to callers, Vallas said she realized the need for attorneys to begin work in a new area of advocacy for legal aid lawyers.

“The population of individuals who receive SSI are among the most vulnerable of the low-income population,” Vallas said. “I’m going to be directly representing individuals who have been denied for benefits or had their benefits cut off wrongfully, for reasons that are not connected to their disability.

“Typically legal aid lawyers focus on cases where people have been cut off because the Social Security administration doesn’t think they are sufficiently disabled to qualify for SSI,” she said. “But there’s this whole group of people out there who have been denied or had their benefits cut off for really nitpicky reasons — things that are connected to their citizenships status, for instance.”

Vallas focused her legal studies around poverty law, and is president of the law school’s Public Interest Law Association, which promotes and supports public interest law by providing fellowships to students who accept volunteer or low-paying summer public service internships. She also volunteers for pro bono legal services through the public service center.

Vallas said it was her mother, a sociology professor, who inspired her to pursue a career either in social work or law. Through the Skadden Fellowship, Vallas said, she’s able to combine the best of both fields, working to resolve challenging legal issues with some of society’s most vulnerable individuals and families.

“The project I’m going to be doing and that it’s going to be funding is my dream job, and it’s with my dream employer,” she said. “It’s just the absolute best-case scenario for what I could be doing for two years after graduation.”

Vallas has a long resume in public service. She is an American Bar Association John Curtin Fellow for Legal Services, an Equal Justice America Fellow, a Doris Buffet Fellow and a Patton Boggs Public Policy Fellow. Last year she was awarded the Ritter Prize, given to four second-year students that show extraordinary character, honor and integrity. In addition to winning the Pro Bono Award in 2007 and 2008, she received the Claire Corcoran Award, presented to one or two second-year students who demonstrate an extraordinary commitment to public interest work.  

In addition to an annual salary of $46,000, for those fellows not covered by a law school low-income protection plan, Skadden pays law school debt service for the tuition part of the loan for the duration of the fellowship. Skadden Fellows from the Law School are eligible to participate in the Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program, which provides partial payment of their law school loans.

Past Skadden Fellows from the Law School include Dania Davy, Michael Hollander and Matthew VanWormer (2008), Erin Trodden (2006), Janet Stocco (2004), Jennifer Maranzano (2003), Chinh Quang Le (2001), Timothy Freilich and Christine Ellertson (1999), and Mary Bauer (1990). The first Skadden Fellowships were awarded in 1989.


• Reported by Ashley Matthews