Celebrating a Decade of the Exemplary Public Service Awardby KENNETH BERKOWITZ | ILLUSTRATION by FELICITA SALA | EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY by SHERYL D. SINKOW
In the eleven years since Karen Comstock was named assistant dean for public service, and in the six years since she was joined by Elizabeth Peck, director of public service, the program has grown exponentially.
The Office of Public Service now offers in-depth, one-on-one career counseling, with Comstock and Peck providing help researching job opportunities, finding externships, networking with alumni, building résumés and cover letters, and developing interview skills. There are funds available to every first- and second-year student who chooses to spend the summer working in the public interest, and an extensive loan forgiveness program for graduates who begin their career in the public sector.
Comstock and Peck begin with the broadest possible definition of public service, one that encompasses government agencies, legal aid offices, community groups, foundations, nonprofit organizations, judges' chambers, and law firms focusing on class action and impact litigation that benefit the public. To showcase the breadth of possibilities, they coordinate student pro bono opportunities every term, and each spring, they host a trio of events that highlight alumni working in the public interest. There's a lecture series featuring a major address by a leading practitioner; a career symposium for students led by recent Cornell Law School graduates; and a reception to honor the alumni winners of the Law School's Exemplary Public Service Awards, held at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.
"The honorees are people who think about how they can best use their legal skills for the public good," says Comstock. "They get up in the morning thinking about what's most meaningful in their career, and how they can make a contribution to the world around them. That's what's important to them, and that's a value this institution feels very strongly about. That's what we mean by 'lawyers in the best sense.' You have this powerful degree. How are you going to use it?"
Over the past ten years, the Exemplary Public Service Awards have honored close to one hundred alumni working both inside and outside the legal profession. In any given year, there are recent grad "rising stars" standing alongside Cornellians who have been in the field for decades, and in even the small, tenthanniversary sample that follows, with one portrait for each year of the awards, there's an enormous range of work being done in the public interest, with a rare opportunity for people to be celebrated for their contributions.
"Public service is at the heart of our identity," says Eduardo M. Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law, who has made expanding financial aid a priority of his deanship. "The legal profession has as its core a commitment to the rule of law, and at the center of the rule of law is access to justice. Because Cornell is a land-grant institution, public service has always been one of our core values. Recognizing the contributions of students and alumni working in the public interest is a source of great pride, reaffirming our commitment to Cornell lawyers excelling in every corner of the profession."
"We work in the trenches every day, and we never expect anybody to acknowledge what we do," says Betty Barker, a deputy public defender in Northern California's Contra Costa County and 2012 award winner. "We don't expect to be recognized, and in fact, we're almost universally disliked. So it was really moving to me to receive the award-I love what I do, and I do it because I think it's the right thing to do. That's how I want to spend my life, helping make sure the underprivileged can have the best possible defense. And I was so honored to know that Cornell recognizes that as being really important."
2006- ANGELICA "KICA" MATOS '99
When she arrived at Cornell Law School, Angelica "Kica" Matos '99 knew exactly what she was going to do: study hard, become a death penalty lawyer, and move to either Texas or Louisiana to litigate postconviction cases. "But life has a strange way of derailing your best efforts," says Matos, who was working as executive director of New Haven's Junta for Progressive Action when she was included in the first Public Service Awards in 2006.
After working in the Capital Habeas Unit of the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia, Matos met her future husband, moved to New Haven, and needed to find a new practice. Drawing on her background -she grew up in Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, and New Zealand-she gravitated toward immigrant advocacy, first as executive director of Junta, NewHaven's oldest Latino advocacy organization; then as deputy mayor for community services with the city of New Haven; and then with Atlantic Philanthropies, where she headed a Reconciliation and Human Rights Programme that focused on protecting civil liberties, advancing racial justice, abolishing the death penalty, and reforming immigration laws.
In 2012, Matos became director of immigrant rights and racial justice at the Center for Community Change, where she coordinates the work of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, the nation's largest coalition of state-based immigrant rights organizations, and played a key role in crafting and advancing the national strategy for immigration reform that culminated last November in a pair of executive actions by President Obama, bringing relief to an estimated five million undocumented immigrants.
"It was an exhilarating moment, a victory for the movement, and a great affirmation of the power of community engagement," says Matos, who currently divides her time between New Haven and Washington, D.C. "Don't get me wrong- the work is incredibly hard and the hours are brutal. But there's something deeply rewarding about being engaged in a movement fueled by the voices of those most affected, who also happen to be among the most disenfranchised in this country. I'm constantly awed by the acts of bravery by undocumented immigrants, stepping out to publicly acknowledge their status and fearlessly working to bring about change. That's what inspires me."
2007- DOUGLAS LASDON '81
Three years out of law school, Douglas Lasdon '81 founded the Legal Action Center for the Homeless (LACH) as a one-person operation in an unheated, burned-out building in East Harlem. His goal was to help people at the farthest margins of society, both individually and collectively, by providing outreach at shelters and soup kitchens. Within the next few years, as LACH evolved into the Urban Justice Center, Lasdon and his colleagues expanded that focus, reaching beyond his original vision to include sex workers; survivors of domestic violence; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth; prisoners; refugees; street vendors; victims of human trafficking; and U.S. military veterans.
"We now have ten projects, 120 staff members, and a budget of over $11 million," says Lasdon. "We've been the driving force behind a lot of systemic advocacy efforts, including class action lawsuits that have made significant changes to the services that poor people use. There have been a lot of those cases, too many to point to, but the single thing I'm proudest of is creating this organization."
In his first case, Palmer v. Cuomo, Lasdon advocated for youth in foster care, who were being denied services as soon as they turned eighteen. In Doe v. City of New York, he established the right for homeless married couples to be housed in shelters together. In Young v. New York City Transit Authority he challenged the ban on begging in the subway system as a violation of the First Amendment. In Tolle v. Dinkins, he forced the city to reduce the legal capacity of its largest shelter from 1,050 to 350 men.
"I love my job," says Lasdon, who also works as an adjunct faculty member at New York University. "I went to law school solely because I wanted to do public interest work, and I finished as a better reader and a better thinker because of that education. It prepared me for the world. It prepared me to be a more effective member of the community, and I'm very happy with the choice I made."
2008- JOE IAROCCI '84
As a student, Joe Iarocci '84 did not foresee winning an award for public service. After graduation, he quickly headed for Big Law, spending five years as an associate at Shearman & Sterling on Wall Street and six years as a partner at Lamar, Archer & Cofrin in Atlanta. But along the way, he changed direction.
"I had a real crisis of meaning," says Iarocci. "I was working at great places and making a ton of money, but it wasn't doing it for me. I went through this period of wondering, 'Is this all there is?' And by some twist of fate and good fortune-partly because of my Cornell education and my experience on Wall Street-I became general counsel at CARE, the poverty-fighting NGO. All of a sudden, everything fell into place."
From general counsel, Iarocci became CFO, then chief of staff, when he received the Law School's Public Service Award, and then interim executive vice president for global advocacy and external relations, with responsibility for guiding the organization's strategic partnerships, marketing, and communications. Over the course of those thirteen years at CARE, Iarocci also found a new passion for leadership development.
"At CARE, I came to see that the solution to any problem in the world-you pick it: climate change, racism, sexism, poverty, hunger- wasn't more money, more technology, or more human resources. It was leadership," says Iarocci.
In 2012, he launched the third stage of his career, becoming CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, a fifty-year-old leadership development nonprofit. In 2014 he founded the Cairnway Center for Servant Leadership Excellence to counsel Fortune 500 clients on best leadership practices. "When a company that's not known for being warm and fuzzy wants to advance servant leadership, and when hardbitten businesspeople come up to you after a conference to say you've changed their lives, it's amazingly gratifying. I've got to tell you, it doesn't get much better than that."
2009- ARTHUR EISENBERG '68
More than forty years into his career at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), Arthur Eisenberg '68 shows no signs of stopping. These days, he's keeping busiest in a lawsuit where he's asking for the release of grand jury testimony in the choke-hold death of Eric Garner. In a second case, he's trying to negotiate a settlement to bring about affordable and racially integrated housing in Brooklyn, and in a third, he's pursuing federal court litigation against the NYPD for sending undercover agents into mosques and Muslim student organizations in the absence of evidence of criminal misconduct.
"It never gets dull," says Eisenberg, legal director of the NYCLU. "I get to work on a broad variety of issues, but at the end of the day, the thing that really drives me is the capacity to use the litigation process as an instrument of justice, to expand individual liberties and civil rights."
Over the course of his career, Eisenberg has been involved in more than twenty cases presented to the U.S. Supreme Court, serving either as a cocounsel for direct litigants or as a coauthor of briefs on behalf of amici curiae. The cases have included claims that states violate the First Amendment when they deny voters the right to use write-in ballots; that legislatures violate the Fourteenth Amendment when they engage in political gerrymandering; and that a school board violated the First Amendment when, for political reasons, it removed ten books from its school library. The school case, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, is the one he considers his favorite.
"We instinctively believed that what the school board was doing was an act of censorship, but legal doctrine hadn't reached the point where the board's actions could easily fit into areas of First Amendment protection," says Eisenberg. "We were developing new law, and it was perhaps the most interesting example of trying to create legal doctrine where there was virtually no law before we started the litigation."
Eisenberg's broad exposure to a range of constitutional issues has provided him with what he has described as "opportunities to dabble in legal scholarship" by publishing numerous law review articles and essays and by teaching constitutional litigation and civil rights law at University of Minnesota Law School and at Cardozo School of Law. "There are always new issues, new challenges," he insists, "and too much to do to think about retirement."
2010- NICKY GOREN '92
In 2008, after working as a federal government attorney for fourteen years, Nicky Goren '92 decided it was time to leave her comfort zone. Becoming chief of staff at the Corporation for National and Community Service, which administers AmeriCorps, Goren moved into a highly visible, politically charged role at the center of a national debate about the public interest, and found herself using her Cornell Law School education in new ways.
"My law degree is still the foundation of who I am," says Goren, currently president and CEO of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, a major nonprofit funder in Washington, D.C. "That law degree led me to AmeriCorps, where I first worked as associate general counsel, then became chief of staff and then acting CEO, which led to management in the philanthropy sector. That's the door I walked through, and there came a point where it didn't make sense to go back to being a lawyer. So I just built on what I'd done and kept moving forward."
Forward meant leaving a billion-dollar federal agency and entering the nonprofit sector as president of the Washington Area Women's Foundation. For the next four years, Goren focused on learning how to fundraise, building a team, and providing grants to improve the lives of girls and women. Then, with the organization on a stronger footing, Goren moved to Meyer, which broadens the scope of her impact to include hundreds of thousands of children and families in the D.C. region.
"When I graduated from the Law School, I didn't have a plan, but thanks to Dean Lukingbeal, I had some criteria for what I wanted to do," says Goren. "I wanted to be challenged every day. I wanted to work with people that I love and enjoy. I wanted to feel passionate about what I do, to wake up every morning feeling excited to go to work. That's how I made my choices, and somehow, it feels as though every decision led me to this place, which is exactly where I'm meant to be."
2011- MATTHEW D. GLASSER '77
After graduating from law school, Matthew D. Glasser '77 returned to Colorado, unsure of his next step. "I had doubts about whether a traditional legal career would be personally satisfying," says Glasser, who retired last fall at the World Bank's mandatory retirement age of sixty-two. "A lot of people experience tension between what they want to do, what they should do from some moral/ethical point of view, and what they must do to earn a living. When I was in law school, I didn't yet know how to square that circle, but when I look back on my career now, it all looks connected."
At his first job, working for a small firm in Denver, Glasser represented municipalities and water districts, helping structure bond issues and special borrowing. From there, he was appointed city attorney in Broomfield, where he advised the city council, negotiated agreements, and lobbied in Washington for state and local interests. Leaving government service, he became a full-time attorney and lobbyist, securing $80 million for five Colorado municipalities to protect their drinking water supply from contamination by the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant.
In 1997, a reservoir was named in Glasser's honor, but by then, he'd already gone global, working with USAID to advise the government of Ukraine on land and housing issues; counseling the National Treasury of South Africa on municipal finance; and advancing economic development in central Asia, Romania, and Russia. In 2003, he joined the World Bank as an urban legal adviser, supervising projects in India, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Then, after eleven years at the World Bank, he celebrated his sixty-second birthday by getting married and preparing to teach his first class at American University's Washington College of Law.
"A good law education prepares you to think in shades, to examine why structures are created to govern society, and to understand what they're intended to accomplish," says Glasser. "Law is about the social engineering of a society. Just as you'd have to study engineering to build a better bridge, you have to study law to build a better society."
2012- BETTY BARKER '89
Before coming to Cornell Law School, Betty Barker '89 knew she wanted to be a litigator. But until she met her first clients at the Cornell Legal Aid Clinic, she didn't know what kind.
"The moment I started working in the clinic, I loved it," says Barker, assistant public defender in Northern California's Contra Costa County. "My first summer, I applied for a job at the clinic, and just fell in love with it, so I took classes in the clinic my second and third years. I was working with indigent people, handling Social Security disability claims, unemployment claims, and lots of evictions. To me, that's what lawyering is all about: fighting for your client in court every day. And that's why I decided to do what I do."
The stakes are high, with Barker defending clients who face either the death penalty or life in prison. In one recent case, she represented a man charged in a widely publicized gang rape at Richmond High School in 2009, who was sentenced to 32 years in prison; in another, she successfully argued that a homicide client was mentally incompetent. The cases are exhausting, and though the hours are long, she's learned to manage the stress and create a balance between work and family.
"We take cases where our clients may get life in prison, and our job is to do everything we can to prevent that from happening," says Barker. "But if it happens, you have to be able to live with that, and there are people who quickly recognize this is not the work for them. You have to be able to manage chaos. And I love chaos-it's like being an ER doctor, and it takes a lot of adrenaline. Every day you walk into work, and you don't know what's going to happen. There's always an emergency; you're never, ever bored. And there are very few lawyers who can say that."
2013- WENDY J. WEINBERG '84
For the first twelve years of her career, Wendy J. Weinberg '84 focused on legal aid, starting in Nassau and Suffolk counties before moving on to Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Baltimore, where she coordinated efforts by the Maryland Coalition for Civil Justice to improve the delivery of legal services to the indigent. It was challenging, satisfying work, building on the experiences she'd had at the Law School's legal aid clinic-until a job opened up in consumer protection, and she took the leap.
"That turned out to be pivotal in my career," says Weinberg, currently an enforcement attorney at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). "I shifted to consumer protection, and I've been there ever since, because I've seen how fundamental this work is. When people are taken advantage of financially, particularly people of limited means, it has enormous consequences. Without money, everything falls apart, and when you're dealing with scams that target people's very last dollar, from credit repair to debt relief to debt collection, it has a devastating impact on people and on society as a whole."
That first pivot to executive director of the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators was followed six years later by a job as assistant attorney general in the District of Columbia, where Weinberg conducted prosecutions for violations of the Consumer Protection Procedures Act. That led to the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, where she founded a consumer law practice, and to the CFPB, where she currently conducts investigations and enforcement actions against companies, including banks, that provide financial services or products to consumers.
"It's been a fascinating, stimulating experience," says Weinberg. "And a monumental experience, because everyone is impacted by the financial marketplace. Working for the federal government means I'm handling cases that have the capacity to affect a much larger group of individuals, with the potential to make a real difference in people's lives, which is why I began this work in the first place."
2014- CYRUS MEHRI '88
In the years since graduation, Cyrus Mehri '88 has made a name for himself as a tireless litigator, seeking redress for victims of discrimination. He's served as co-lead counsel in some of the most significant race and gender cases in American history, including Roberts v. Texaco Inc. ($176 million) and Ingram v. The Coca-Cola Company ($192 million). But before Workforce magazine called him "Corporate America's scariest opponent," Mehri was simply another 1L, the son of Iranian immigrants trying to find his way.
"I did a lot of searching in law school, which created a few good leadership opportunities," says Mehri, partner at Mehri & Skalet, who was articles editor on the
Cornell International Law Journal. "That first year, I took torts with Professor Henderson and contracts with Professor Summers, studying at the feet of these giants. It was a profound experience, and I came away with a commitment to excellence, which I've tried to carry with me going forward."
With his "Women on Wall Street Project," Mehri aims to end corporate discrimination in financial institutions; in the "Madison Avenue Project," he's investigating discrimination claims against some of the world's most powerful ad agencies. Most recently, as the NFL's special counsel on social responsibility, he's working with women's rights organizations to develop some new policies, which he expects to announce in the coming months.
"At heart, I'm a reformer, someone who really wants to bring about change for the better," says Mehri. "Every single day, I'm trying to get companies to open their doors, to really take a stand for opportunity, and even though we start as adversaries, a lot of these companies end up becoming our strong allies, because they really embrace what we're trying to do.
"I've been a big fan of these Public Service Awards, and it's been an education to see the amazing things these Cornell students and alumni have been doing in the public interest," he continues. "The night I was given the award, I introduced my dad to the woman who's now my fiancée, and I talked about the work we all do, bringing about systemic change. It was very meaningful, and becoming a part of this ten-year tradition brought a little extra magic to the night."
The Class of 2015
The room was full and the mood celebratory as the Law School hosted its 10th annual Alumni Exemplary Public Service Awards at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York on January 30.
"It's inspiring to see people who have dedicated their careers to representing the indigent, protecting people from crime, and ensuring access to due process," said Eduardo M. Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law. "These are people who've made significant sacrifices to practice law on behalf of populations that would otherwise not have access to justice, and when we hear about lawyers doing this kind of work, it makes us proud to be Cornell lawyers."
This 10th anniversary class had nine alumni award winners, with years of public service experience, working with immigrant detainees in federal custody, victims of domestic violence, prisoners on death row, and recipients of Medicare and temporary assistance. There were experts in Native American cultural resources, white-collar fraud prosecution, investigative journalism, and wildlife conservation, all gathered together to be honored for their work. In addition, twelve students received awards for their dedication to public service during their law school careers.
"It's extremely gratifying to be recognized by the Law School," said Nav Dayanand, LL.M. '04, director of federal government relations for the Nature Conservancy, who works closely with Oregon's congressional delegation and federal agencies on environmental policy issues. "It feels significant that I'm only the second recipient with the LL.M. degree to be recognized, and that the work I do is so nontradi- tional. I don't practice law, but I've always used my legal education to work in the public sector. The Law School recognizes the different journey that I'm on, and that speaks volumes."
It was an evening of contrasts, of prosecutors and public defenders sharing stories, and if Dayanand represents working inside the system, Lisa Graves '94 represents the opposite.
"It was a surprise to receive this recognition and be a part of this group," said Graves, who directs the Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog organization that exposes the impact of corporate wealth on public policy. "I'm really proud of the work we do to shine a light on the powerful interests that diminish our democracy, and to lift up the voices of working Americans. Out of all the schools I could go to, I chose Cornell for its vision of using the law as a tool to reform society, and I'm glad to see the Law School reinvesting in that vision."
It was an emotional evening, and for Comstock and Peck, the high point of the year. "Awards have a positive ripple effect," said Elizabeth Peck, director of public service. "They're like big, beautiful, shiny rocks in a pond, with ripples that keep spreading further and further. They tell stories, and the stories travel back to Ithaca, and to people working at law firms, people who might be inspired by their example. I know that when we see all this good work, it motivates us to keep doing more."
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