Washington and Lee University third-year law student Sam Petsonk has been awarded a prestigious fellowship from the Skadden Foundation. These highly-coveted, post-graduate fellowships provide funds to law students who want to devote their professional life to providing legal services to the poor (including the working poor), the elderly, the homeless and the disabled, as well as those deprived of their civil or human rights.
The Skadden Fellowship Program, often described as a “legal Peace Corps,” provides fellows with a salary and benefits consistent with the public interest organization sponsoring the law student’s fellowship application. In Petsonk’s case, this organization is Mountain State Justice, a non-profit, public interest law firm based in Charleston, WV.
Petsonk, who was born and raised in the coal-mining area around Morgantown, West Virginia, will focus his fellowship on representing coal miners who have experienced unsafe working conditions. He will also help miners gain access to a variety of state and federal health services and assist them in public hearings before regulatory agencies.
This is not Petsonk’s first foray into public service for coal miners. After leaving home for college at Brandeis, Petsonk returned to West Virginia with the AmeriCorps VISTA program, helping miners access health services and educating the community on public health and other matters.
“It was only after I left home for a time that I realized how much of who I am I owe to the region and the people of Appalachia,” says Petsonk. “I have always felt powerfully drawn to return to West Virginia and work on these issues.”
Following his service with AmeriCorps, Petsonk worked in the office of U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, where he continued to work on coal miner health and safety issues including black lung disease and safety regulation.
Petsonk says he chose W&L Law for his legal education in part due to the school’s innovative efforts to involve third-year students in serving the low-wage and working families of the region, and in part because he knew its strong, close-knit alumni network would allow him to find opportunities and connections in his chosen field.
“I am grateful that W&L creates space in the curriculum and in the student experience for students to dig in to their interests and personal aspirations and commitments,” says Petsonk. “There is a certain humanity about this law school that makes it possible to create projects like this that are deeply resonant and personal legal endeavors.”
Rockbridge County was also a fine spot, Petsonk notes, to pursue his passion for old-time music. But for Petsonk, who has played the banjo since childhood and more recently taken up the fiddle, his musical interests go beyond hobby or diversion. Rather, he sees music as an extension of his work.
“Public interest legal advocacy is not just about relationships in a courtroom, it’s about building a community of advocates,” says Petsonk. “Music is a big part of that community and the community of clients I have worked with in the past and will be working with as a fellow.”
The Skadden Fellowship Program was started in 1988 by the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom to commemorate the firm’s 40th anniversary and in recognition of the dire need for greater funding for graduating law students to enter public interest law. So far, the Program has funded 677 law school graduates and judicial clerks to work full-time for legal and advocacy organizations. Petsonk is only the second W&L Law student to receive a Skadden Fellowship.
After the fellowship is over, Petsonk fully hopes to remain in West Virginia to continue his work with coal miners. He is dedicated to making sure there are good, safe job opportunities for miners and providing innovative and low cost legal services to the community.
“West Virginians have done the heavy lifting of mining the coal to make the steel to build the factories and cities of this country,” says Petsonk. “This fellowship is just a part of a broader commitment to establishing simple justice for those workers.”
School of Law Director of Communications