Liam McGivern, a 27-year-old Miami Law student from Edmonds, Wash., is one of 28 third-year law students nationally to have been awarded a prestigious Skadden Fellowship, given to remarkable students who have proven their ability and desire to provide legal help to traditionally disenfranchised people.
"I am super excited!" McGivern wrote in an e-mail to Miami Law Dean Patricia D. White, explaining that he will be working at Legal Services of Greater Miami, an agency with which he is intimately familiar. He has spent two summers and two semesters working there since he began studying at Miami Law, primarily on providing legal services for low-income veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or brain injuries and who are seeking upgrades in their military discharges. At his request, McGivern will continue that work during his two-year fellowship.
"I cannot wait to begin my work," McGivern said in his e-mail to the dean.
McGivern added that he had received "tons of support" from Miami Law faculty members Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, Farrin Anello, and Rosario Lozada Schrier, as well as former adjunct faculty member Jennifer Hill, all former Skadden Fellows. As a Miami Scholar, he also thanked everyone at the school's HOPE Public Interest Resource Center, which provides guidance and training to law students dedicated to community service, for helping him develop his application and prepare for his interview with Susan Butler Plum, the director of the Skadden Fellowship Foundation.
The school's Career Development Office came in for praise from Bettinger-Lopez "for their wonderful assistance" in McGivern's application process.
The Fellowship program was established in 1988 in honor of the 40th anniversary of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and "in recognition of the dire need for greater funding for graduating law students and judicial clerks who are dedicating their careers to providing legal services to underserved members of society," Skadden's website says. To date, the firm has funded almost 650 Fellows, who, before they apply, must create their own projects at public interest organizations with at least two lawyers on staff.
Skadden provides each Fellow with a salary for two years and pays all fringe benefits to which an employee of the sponsoring organization would be entitled.
The firm's website says that its 2012 class of Skadden Fellows is comprised of 28 graduating law students and judicial clerks who are devoting their professional careers to public interest work. "The Fellows will work in nine states and the District of Columbia," the site says, "focusing on issues ranging from the health and safety of low-wage immigrant workers in California to representing Russian-speaking victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking in New York."
Legal Services of Greater Miami, McGivern's non-profit agency of choice for his veterans' rights legal advocacy, each year handles civil legal matters benefiting more than 30,000 individuals and families, according to its website. "We recover almost $1.5 million for clients in disability, unemployment, child support and government benefits," it says, adding that in most cases, eligibility for services is based on an annual income at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
"Working at Legal Services will allow me to do what I want to be doing," McGivern said in an interview on The Bricks a few days after he had heard the good news. While working as a volunteer at Legal Services several months ago, the military discharge projects in which he was involved lost their funding, but he had been enjoying the work so much that he resolved to find a way to keep doing it. Hence the application to Skadden.
He remembered a particular case, that of a decorated Marine who, on his second deployment to Iraq, was badly injured when the Humvee in which he was riding was destroyed by a roadside bomb. The Marine's brain injuries caused cognitive problems that, in McGivern's view, eventually led to behavior that prompted the Marine's dishonorable discharge from the military.
"I did a lot of work on researching traumatic brain injuries and tying them to specific instances of misconduct," McGivern said. "They have poor impulse control. In his case, the cognitive impairments made it so that he couldn't live up to the standards of the military. I think the misconduct can be tied to the injuries."
And that's what McGivern helped to prove in his petition for a so-called discharge upgrade, which resulted in the Marine receiving an honorable discharge, with all the advantages it entails.
"His was a really compelling case," McGivern said. Many members of the military, he went on, "get kicked out with no benefits, and no hope of securing employment afterwards."
At Legal Services of Greater Miami, McGivern wants also to "develop practice materials for other attorneys who might handle these kinds of cases."
But before all that can happen, McGivern plans to spend his last law-school semester in an exchange program at University College Dublin, Ireland's largest university, with almost 25,000 students. And that, he said, is just about all the excitement he can handle for now.