Q&A with Susan Butler Plum: Enabling Young Lawyers to Work with the Poor

Susan Butler Plum and Dr. Joseph Makhema

Susan Butler Plum is the founding director of the Skadden Fellowship Foundation, which every year awards two-year grants to 25 public-interest attorneys. She also serves on a number of boards, including HAI’s International Advisory Council. She recently spoke by phone with Martha Henry, HAI’s Executive Director.

When people ask what your job is, how do you reply?

I say that I’m the founder and director of a foundation that makes grants for young lawyers to work with the poor. Most of our applications come from the best law schools in America. Probably 45 to 50 applications a year come from the top of the class at Harvard Law School.

The Skadden Fellowships began in 1988 to mark the 40th anniversary of the firm’s founding. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom is a big international law firm. When they approached you to help them create something philanthropic, were you skeptical?

Skadden is a very unusual place. This firm was founded in the late 40s by Catholics and Jews who had been law review editors at places like Harvard Law School who couldn’t even get an interview [to work at a law firm]. It was started by people who were not white-shoe types, who wanted to do something different, who believed that pro bono was part of their responsibility in the way doctors believe it. You don’t get to be a partner at Skadden unless you do a lot of pro bono. This is a very unusual place. It’s the only firm in the country that would have done something like the Skadden Fellowships.

What is the mission of Skadden Fellows?

Their mission is to provide civil legal services to the poor. We don’t deploy them the way the Peace Corps deploys people. From the beginning, I wanted Fellows to be invested in where they go, so we have them design their dream job before they apply.

In 1987, the year before we were founded, the American Bar Association did a survey and found that only 20% of poor people ever got their civil needs addressed, which meant that if we funded 25 young lawyers for a two-year experience, we could help a lot.  And that has just kept multiplying and multiplying and multiplying.

The Skadden Fellowship program has been around for 28 years. How has it changed?

It hasn’t changed at all. The only thing that has changed is some of the issue areas. For instance, none of us had ever heard of misdemeanor debt until Ferguson. Then we realized that small cities all over the country live on it. We’ve done a lot of work on that area since. That kind of thing.

There used to be a social safety net in this country until Newt Gingrich and some of his associates started pawing away at it and breaking it. Since then, we’ve done more work on economic development and community development.

I start new foundations for a living. When the firm recruited me, I said I would stay for two years to get the program started. It was such a great job that I never left. I’m still here, 28 years later.

A first year associate at a New York law firm like Skadden now makes $180,000. What’s the annual salary of a Skadden Fellow?


Do Skadden Fellows usually stay in public service?

90% stay in the public interest. We define public interest as either staying in their original jobs, working in a similar job, providing legal services for another non-profit agency, or becoming an assistant attorney general—which they are all over the country. Skadden Fellows are also teaching all over the country.

10% go into the private bar, but only 4% go into the traditional white shoe private bar. The other 6% are in plaintiff-side firms that are started by former legal services lawyers.

Of the 10% that are in the private bar, most of them go on the boards of the organizations where they were fellows. All of them do a ton of pro bono. Every time I call one of them to ask, “Would you. . .” they interrupt me before I say what it is and they say, “Yes.”

You clearly have a social justice streak in you. Where does that come from?

My father was a civil rights lawyer, mostly working on labor issues in Pittsburgh—the United Mine Workers, United Steelworkers, and the International Union of Electrical Workers. Unions would have father-daughter picnics and softball games that we would go to. His father was murdered for labor organizing, so this stuff is deeply imbedded in me. My grandmother was a role model because she founded libraries in Pennsylvania and was very involved with early child welfare organizations. From the beginning, I was very involved.

To understand more about the Skadden Fellowships, read a profile of Marni von Wilpert, who while serving as a Skadden Fellow created a partnership to provide comprehensive medical and legal care to people living with HIV/AIDS in Mississippi.

Title image: Susan Butler Plum and Dr. Joseph Makhema, CEO of the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute, at a meeting in Gaborone, Botswana