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Taking On the Legal Battles of Those in Need

April 12, 1993|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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

\o7 "What we're really talking about is cultural survival."

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