Public Interest Resource Center Honors Students and Founder Thomas Schoenherr at 30th Annual Awards Ceremony

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On April 8, Fordham Law School’s Public Interest Resource Center (PIRC) recognized hundreds of students at its 30th Annual Public Interest Students Award Ceremony, held virtually this year. The Class of 2021 contributed over 135,000 hours of pro bono clinical and community service work during their time at Fordham Law. Speeches made during this year’s ceremony can be viewed at the end of post.

Professors Marcella Silverman and Beth Schwartz—who both strengthened and supported Fordham Law’s public interest community and will both be retiring this year—presented the Archibald R. Murray Public Service Award to 302 students. The Archibald R. Murray Public Service Awards are given to graduating students who have devoted 100 or more hours to pro bono and community service work during their time as Fordham Law students. Of the 303 students, 145 members performed between 100 and 249 hours of service; 72 members completed between 250 and 499 hours of service; 52 members completed between 500 and 999 hours of service; and 33 members completed 1,000 or more hours of service.

Fifty-two members of this year’s graduating class were also presented PIRC Student Leadership Awards for their outstanding commitment and efforts, on behalf of the Fordham Law community, to PIRC student organizations. Twenty-three members were named recipients of the Stein Scholars Graduation Certificates for completing the Stein Scholars’ program requirements in ethics and public interest law. Fourteen pro bono scholars were also recognized for performing 12 weeks of full-time, pro bono work on behalf of indigent and low-income clients.

“We are grateful for the energy, knowledge, heart, and love you have brought to our public interest community and to Fordham Law School more broadly,” said Leah Horowitz, assistant dean for public interest and social justice initiatives.

Honoring a Pioneer in Public Service

Public service—long valued at Fordham Law School—is expressed in large part by the annual activities of nearly 500 Fordham Law students who participate in some form of pro bono, community service, or advocacy work through PIRC. The Center’s emphasis on student-initiated public service broke the mold at the time of its inception in 1991. Today, the Center continues to set the standard for law schools nationwide by assisting and inspiring students who seek to be committed to, rather than merely comply with, the spirit of pro bono publico—work for the public good.

Dean Matthew Diller presented the 2021 Louis J. Lefkowitz Public Service Award to Thomas Schoenherr, who retired as assistant dean of PIRC last May. Schoenherr launched PIRC more than 30 years ago with just three student pro bono groups. Now, it has expanded to 22 groups with about 500 students who participate annually in various PIRC initiatives and projects.

“He not only has transformed Fordham Law School, [but]he has transformed legal education by creating the model of the public interest office that is adopted by law schools around the country with a singular core common denominator in point—which is the students come first,” Diller said in reference to Schoenherr.

Upon accepting the award, Schoenherr thanked Fordham Law School colleagues, members from other law schools and legal services offices, various bar associations, and professional organizations (like National Association for Law Placement, Equal Justice Works, and the Association of American Law Schools) for their support and mentorship across nearly three and a half decades. He thanked the student body for inspiring him, and also elaborated on how Fordham Law students’ deep dedication to people and causes most in need of legal attention and advocacy have consistently amazed him.

“With all the pressures and competing demands of law school, you still devoted so much time, hundreds of hours to public service. And this is what has always inspired me to do whatever I could to help clear the way for all of you and all your projects,” Schoenherr said. “It was from you and all of your zeal, energy, and new ideas that really helped push to expand PIRC’s reach and impact over the years.”

Recognizing Stand-Out Students

Aaron Gladstone ’21 was named this year’s public interest valedictorian. Given his strong commitment to labor unions as an instrument of social progress, Gladstone helped revive and grow the Workers’ Rights Advocates group at Fordham Law. Within the last year, Gladstone also worked with the Community Economic Development Clinic—helping new mutual aid groups figure out how to become fully-fledged organizations and helping these groups address the immediate need for grocery and medicine deliveries, child care, and rent relief during the pandemic.

“As lawyers, we have the responsibility and the honor of putting our hands on the wheels of society and pushing as hard as we can towards that [fight for democracy],” Gladstone said prior to thanking his family and friends, as well as PIRC faculty and staff and Fordham Law for giving him and his classmates the tools needed to fight for justice.

‘While no one of us is strong enough to push the wheel all the way, when we all push together as public interest lawyers and as members of the movement, I know that we can achieve that democracy.”

Stein Scholar Nicholas Loh ’22 received this year’s 2L Public Interest Student of the Year award. Loh has been working for the NYC Commission on Human Rights and UnLocal on a variety of local immigration and human rights issues. Within Fordham Law, Loh is proactive on the Stein Council; a member of the Brendan Moore Trial Advocacy group; co-vice president of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association; and serves on the Dean’s advisory council on diversity, working directly with the Law School on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.

Loh reflected on how public interest doesn’t happen in a vacuum. “It happens when you get to collaborate with passionate fellow students and colleagues,” he explained. “Someone calls you up with an idea and you run with it.”

Stein Scholar Aleezah Merali ’23 received this year’s 1L Public Student of the Year award. Merali is a 1L representative to the Fordham Advocates for the Incarcerated group and serves as an advocate for both the Courtroom Advocates Project and Suspension Representation Project. She will continue this line of work this summer as an public defender intern with the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.

“It’s easy to make this general proclamation of an intent to do good, but what’s harder is to foster an environment that nurtures this desire and cultivates opportunities to pursue this goal,” Merali said. “Fordham Law’s motto—”In service of others”—provides the framework for doing just that.”

Watch the speeches below:

Introduction by Leah Horowitz

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