Twenty-Five Years of Service with the Stein Scholars Program
In the early 1990s, Professor Bruce Green observed an emerging core of Fordham Law students who were oriented toward public interest work but lacked a campus community that would nurture them. He devised a solution: a program that would provide 10 newly admitted students a specialized education in legal ethics and public interest law practice, a summer stipend for a public interest internship, and access to a built-in network of public interest law leaders in New York and beyond.
Then Fordham Law Dean John Feerick took this proposal to Louis Stein ’26, who was already at that time the main benefactor and namesake of the Stein Institute on Law and Ethics (later renamed the Stein Center for Law and Ethics). Stein, determined to make Fordham a legal ethics champion, gave Feerick his enthusiastic blessing. Months later, they conversed again about the forthcoming program. Green had received 17 “phenomenal” applications, Feerick told Stein. Again, Stein expressed his wholehearted support and agreed to fund their stipends.
From Green’s early vision and Feerick and Stein’s deep friendship, the Stein Scholars Program, 25 years later, has become a marquee attraction for Fordham Law students focused on public interest careers. Along the way, the program has also helped transform Fordham Law into an industry leader in the teaching of legal ethics.
The Stein Scholars community today includes more than 400 alumni who have excelled in government, nonprofit, and a broad scope of other public interest legal careers. At any given time, around 65 Stein Scholars are enrolled in Fordham Law School, with many holding leadership positions in the School’s vast array of student-directed public interest groups and within the Stein Scholars Program itself.
“The Stein Scholars often are the students leading the charge for public interest and pro bono work at the School,” said Dean Matthew Diller. “They form many of the student groups, they inspire their peers to get involved in important service work, and they organize events and host speakers on a wide array of critical justice-related issues. They live out the School’s service-oriented ethos.”
Fordham Law School keeps getting better and stronger all the time, but it rests on a foundation that goes back quite a long way. Lou Stein, with his extraordinary generosity, became an important builder of that foundation.
– John Feerick
Stein’s legacy, meanwhile, lives on through the program’s students and the work they do in the service of countless others. His name graces not only the center and the scholars program but also the Fordham-Stein Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in American legal education, as well as an endowed faculty chair, which Green holds. And visitors to the Law School cannot miss Stein’s name above the main entrance. Through the years, his daughters and his grandchildren have continued to be active in the Law School and to provide financial support for the Stein Scholars.
“Fordham Law School keeps getting better and stronger all the time, but it rests on a foundation that goes back quite a long way,” Feerick says. “Lou Stein, with his extraordinary generosity, became an important builder of that foundation. His family and what they created remains one of Fordham Law School’s anchors.”
In Good Graces
Stein’s desire to mold Fordham Law into an ethics powerhouse arose from the ashes of Watergate. The scandal not only resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974 but also led to indictments and prison time for numerous Nixon legal aides, including two Fordham Law alumni. Unsurprisingly, public opinion of the legal profession plummeted. In response to seeing his beloved profession sullied, Stein, then chairman and CEO of Food Fair Stores Inc., wanted Fordham Law to dedicate itself to service and ethics, says Feerick, who was a practicing lawyer and president of the dean’s alumni association when they met in the mid-1970s.
Just two years after Nixon’s resignation, Stein and Feerick collaborated on the creation of the Fordham-Stein Prize, an annual award given to a member of the legal profession whose work embodies the highest standards of the legal profession.
Feerick’s collaboration with Stein intensified when he became dean in 1982. Stein’s strong desire for Fordham to serve as an exemplar for legal ethics education in America resulted in the formation of the Stein Institute on Law and Ethics, first led by Professor Joseph Perillo, one of the nation’s foremost contracts law scholars, and then by the late Professor Mary Daly.
Feerick often visited Stein at his homes in Florida and on the Jersey Shore, where Law School news dominated the conversation. On one such occasion, Feerick brought his young son to New Jersey to meet the businessman and philanthropist. Feerick’s son remarked to his dad that anytime Stein had something serious to say, a twinkle emerged in his eye.
“Lou Stein was like my grandfather,” Feerick recalls. “We got together a lot and talked about the programs we had. He was just so happy with everything going on at the School.”
Stein was “an extraordinarily moral and ethical” man who taught his children and grandchildren that if you earned a dollar, you should give away half, his granddaughter Sally Bellet ’76 says.
Stein was fortunate to find in Feerick a dean who was overwhelmingly responsive to his thoughts, visions, and recommendations, Bellet adds.
“To my grandfather, John Feerick was number one, and the same was true in reverse,” shares Bellet, who remains actively engaged with the Fordham-Stein Prize and the Stein Center. “They just had an understanding and an enthusiasm for new projects, new thoughts, new opportunities. It was beautiful to watch them together.”
The Stein Institute ensured that Fordham Law’s legal ethics faculty and educational offerings were second to none in the late 1980s. At the same time, the Law School’s students began to undertake public interest ventures on campus and around the city via the Fordham Community Service Project, Fordham Pro Bono Project, and Fordham Student Sponsored Fellowship. These efforts caught the attention of Green. He, along with Daly and fellow professor Russell Pearce, elected to use the income from the Stein Institute to support a public interest program for students.
“Lou Stein used to say he wanted his law school to be the center for ethics, the place to which the bar association came for assistance when dealing with ethics issues,” Green says. “We wanted to achieve his vision,” Green adds.
The original framework of the Stein Scholars Program included extracurricular work, roundtable discussions on public interest law and ethics, and a $3,000 summer stipend for students to work in a public interest setting in the summer after their first year of law school. Green created a brochure and mailed it out to newly admitted students the summer before they started law school. “The main thing was we were always looking for students who had a sincere commitment to doing public interest work,” Green says, noting he defined public interest and public service broadly to attract students from a wide range of nonprofit backgrounds, including government service.
“If I had any wisdom, I had the wisdom to listen to Bruce and move ahead with his idea,” Feerick reflects. Green, a former assistant U.S. attorney and clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, set himself apart from other professors for his commitment to the organized bar in addition to his teaching and scholarship, according to Feerick.
Feerick credits the faculty associated with the Stein Scholars in its early days—Green, Pearce, Daly, and Diller—for creating a place where students who sought leadership roles could be mentored and challenged. In return, Green states that Feerick, who served as dean until 2002, deserves major plaudits for championing the program from its infancy.
“Everything we’ve wanted to do that made sense was supported by John and his successors as dean,” Green says.
Today, the program accepts around 20 students each fall plus a few more in the spring. Stein’s contributions, along with the continued support of his daughters and grandchildren, enable Stein Scholars to receive a $4,500 stipend for the first summer. Students who work in public interest settings their second summer receive an additional $5,000.
Lou Stein used to say he wanted his law school to be the center for ethics, the place to which the bar association came for assistance when dealing with ethics issues. We wanted to achieve his vision.
– Bruce Green
During their inaugural year, the Stein Scholars provided Green with a pleasant surprise: They weren’t shy about seeking out additional responsibility in shaping the program’s direction. In the ensuing years, Stein Scholars designed a governing structure with different committees overseen by the Stein Council, including two students from each class. Stein Scholars also design their own projects for their capstone course, the Advanced Seminar in Public Interest Lawyering, another example of their shared ownership of the program.
In addition, Stein Scholars took on a “disproportionate role in the Law School generally,” Green adds, proposing and leading numerous public interest groups within the Public Interest Resource Council, assuming prominent roles in other aspects of the School, and presenting programs open to the entire student body.
For instance, Stein Scholars organized public debates and then crafted a proposal on loan forgiveness that proved influential in the Law School’s decision to begin the Loan Forgiveness Program. They also initiated conversations on mandatory pro bono work by law school students some two decades before then-New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman instituted a pro bono requirement for law students seeking admission to the New York State Bar.
“We were training students to be leaders in their public interest community, and we hoped they would be leaders in the Law School,” Green says. “I don’t think we fully envisioned the level to which they would become student leaders.”
Udi Ofer ’01, the first Stein Council president, salutes Green, Diller, and Pearce for generating space for students to consider difficult questions while pursuing a public interest career, and for allowing them to decide what projects they wanted to take on and which events to hold.
“I think the three professors saw their role as facilitators, helping create a community and empower students,” says Ofer, the American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy national political director and a 2007 recipient of the Stein Scholars Program’s Distinguished Graduate Award. The program, as a whole, helps students “see the forest for the trees,” Ofer continues, when it comes to promoting a vision of how students can use their law degrees in the public interest.
Many Stein Scholars come to Fordham with a vision of what type of public interest law they want to enter, says PIRC Assistant Dean Tom Schoenherr. That vision is often enhanced through participation in student groups, he adds, noting that in any given year, half of Stein Scholars serve in leadership roles in PIRC’s 27 groups. For instance, the Education Law Collaborative, one of the newest student groups, features two Stein Scholars, Kathy Walter ’18 and Anthoula Vasiliou ’19, who connected as a student mentor and a student mentee.
“It’s not surprising when you have law students who have experience in community organizing and grassroots work that they would bring that experience, sensibility, and goals to the project,” says Stein Scholar alumna Dora Galacatos ’96, who serves as executive director of Fordham Law’s Feerick Center for Social Justice.
Public interest can be an isolating track at law schools that place a heavier emphasis on corporate law. Past Stein Scholars say the community that Green once envisioned has come to fruition at Fordham Law, providing them a support structure in addition to top-notch ethics and public interest training.
During her initial week at Fordham Law, Wilson Kimball ’00 received a call from her brother that her sister-in-law had been diagnosed with stage 4 bone marrow cancer and had six months to live. Kimball was working full time in Gov. George Pataki’s office and going to law school at night. Her sister-in-law’s diagnosis unleashed not only a torrent of emotions but also doubts about whether she should stick with law school.
“The Stein community created this cocoon around me and literally helped me get through that whole horrible ordeal,” recalls Kimball, who now serves as Yonkers’ commissioner of planning and development.
While Kimball, a conservative, and Green often disagree politically, she describes him as an “amazing resource” who brings a deep understanding of ethics to the School and its students. “Ethics are ethics, law is law, and rules are rules,” she says, noting ethics, unlike political motivations, aren’t up for debate.
Stein Scholar Sergio Villaverde ’97 attended evening classes at Fordham Law while working full time with the New York Police Department. The program, he says, included him in the same discussions and functions as full-time students, and connected him to Fordham Law School—and the University in general. Substantive legal ethics discussions in the classroom provided him important knowledge for when he opened his own firm. In addition, his summer internship in local government in the Bronx offered an “invaluable,” hands-on experience with legislative process that improves people’s lives.
Rhonda Cunningham Holmes ’97 attended Fordham Law with the intent of giving back to her community, particularly in the area of criminal justice. The Stein Scholars Program introduced her to nuanced discussions in that area, as well as numerous other topics, including housing conditions and affordability issues, homelessness, and tenant rights. The program featured less competition between students and more collaboration on getting the job done to support the community with concrete legal services, she notes.
“That experience showed me a lot of different avenues and ways to give back to the community as a lawyer,” says Holmes, deputy director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. “What it’s ultimately done is provide me a greater sense of urgency to provide that assistance and a greater compassion. It’s allowed me to understand better how we can assist the community.”
A Network of Leaders
Stein Scholars alumni are quick to note that the community they share at Fordham does not end when they graduate. Instead, it is a bond that strengthens over time—one that yields a formidable network. In recent years, graduates have played an increasing role in the program, visiting classes, participating as speakers in programs, and mentoring individual students through the Stein Alumni Networking Initiative.
Green cites the mentoring connection between Marni von Wilpert ’11 and David Knight ’03, a trial attorney with the Justice Department’s Disability Rights Section, as one example of the impact of the networking initiative. Knight mentored von Wilpert, who was awarded a two-year Skadden Fellowship to work at the Mississippi Center for Justice from 2011 to 2013. While there, von Wilpert established Mississippi’s first medical-legal partnership through a collaboration with the University of Mississippi’s Medical Center, providing free legal representation for people living with HIV/AIDS and faced with discrimination in housing, employment, and access to healthcare.
The Stein Scholars Program is not only instrumental in preparing students for careers through legal education and summer internships. Megan Essaheb ’11 says the myriad ways the Stein Scholars Program aided her career development, including practice interviews and networking events, could not be overstated.
“It was a rough market, but I had a lot of support from professors, particularly those affiliated with the Stein program,” says Essaheb, the assistant director for immigration and immigrant rights at Advancing Justice.
“People understand that when a Stein Scholar is applying for jobs, it signifies serious commitment to public interest work and serious training,” Green adds.
This serious commitment to public interest work is why there is “a natural affinity for other Steins” that stretches beyond graduating classes, Holmes says. She has hosted Steins when the Equal Justice Works Conference is held in Washington, D.C.
“I am extraordinarily proud to have been a Stein fellow,” Holmes says. “This program contributes greatly to making sure we use the gift of a legal education for the betterment of mankind. The notion I started with when I was thinking of going to law school was to do something for more than myself. I’ve been able to participate in the kind of work that promotes those values throughout my career.”
For Ofer, chance encounters with other Steins in New York City offer opportunities to reminisce.
“Here we are 16 years out of law school and we’re remembering the education we received together at Fordham,” Ofer says. “At the end of the day, it’s about community, friendships, and camaraderie.”
Twenty-five years into the Stein Scholars Program, Bellet says she would have expected the need for ethics training to diminish. Instead, she says its importance continues to grow. And with it, so does the legacy of her grandfather and the Stein Scholars Program.
Stein made an imprint on many of the early students in the program, including Villaverde. The former police officer turned lawyer notes that Stein “put his money where his mouth was with this program.” For instance, when he saw the space for students was unacceptable, he provided support for the first student lounge on the Lincoln Center campus. Villaverde has, in turn, tried to emulate Stein’s service ethic, maintaining a rank of commander in the Coast Guard Reserve and providing pro bono services for indigent litigants in the Bronx, in addition to operating his own practice.
“No matter where you are, you can still do good,” Villaverde says. “That’s something Lou Stein exemplified.”
To this day, Kimball takes more ethics programs than legally required. Ethics are more important than ever, she says, as is the Stein Scholars Program in addressing those questions and dilemmas.
“New York City and this whole area are so fortunate to have the Stein program, especially now,” Kimball adds. “We need this program more than ever.”