Maria Lukashova, in her third year at CUNY Law School, discusses how the Skadden Program prepared her for law school and the legal advocacy she plans to do after law school. This interview was conducted over the phone and edited.
Tell me about the work you’re doing, specifically a project that is most meaningful to you.
I have been interning with New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG). I got this internship in the summer of 2015 and was offered to stay through the academic year. I work in the family and matrimonial unit. I work with many domestic violence victims. I help them to get orders of protection, to get child support, and custody and visitation rights. It is meaningful work for me because I feel like I can help people navigate the court system. All these petitions could be done by the individual, but people get confused and it is so important to get it right. That is the main goal of my job.
I also help immigrant women obtain their U-visa status. To receive a U visa one must be the victim of a crime. Most of my clients seeking U-visas are victims of domestic violence. This work is interesting to me because I am an immigrant myself. I work with many women who came here to get married, expecting to have a family and their experiences have been very different. Often times their immigration status is contingent on their spouse who is also their victimizer. A lot of the times they don’t report their abusers, because of their status. Their abusers convince them that the police will not listen to them because they are ‘nobodies’ here.
What drew or led you to this work; and what path did you follow?
I thought I was never going to do family law because it is very emotional. Then I was able to do an internship with Hon. Fern Fisher through the Skadden program five years ago. I was able to witness family court proceedings for a full day and realized that I enjoyed it.
How did you get connected to the right people to be able to do that work?
Last winter I sent my resume and letter to a number of organizations participating in the NYU PILC career fair and received a call from NYLAG. They were looking for someone with Russian language speaking skills. I interviewed with NYLAG in February. Two hours after the interview, they called me back and offered me the position.
What did you find most challenging in law school?
The most challenging aspect of the first year of law school was getting in to a workable routine. I considered myself a very organized person in college, but law school required a new level of organization and prioritization. Figuring out how to manage my time effectively and understanding my professor’s expectations were most challenging the first year. Being able to identify what the professor values and wants is a skill I developed that first year. This is a skill that I use on a daily basis, in all of my internships, including in my work with NYLAG.
How does law school differ from how you imagined it?
The Skadden Program prepared me for law school in some ways, but I didn’t realize it would be as difficult. It is a shock going from college to law school. There is no hand-holding in law school. It is doable, but you have to work very hard. Skadden prepared me for that. The hard work starts the first day of law school.
In what ways is law school what you expected?
I heard from many people that you will make many friends in law school because no one else understands what you are going through except your law school peers. I have a hundred great friends in my law school class. I was prepared for torts class, because of the Skadden seminar. It was great to be so well prepared for class.
What in this program specifically helped you in law school?
The program put me on the path of thinking like a lawyer, thinking critically, and it was helpful to have a law-oriented curriculum. Reading and studying a lot in the Skadden program helped prepare me for rigors of law school.
Looking back, what do you wish someone had told you when you started in the Skadden program? And, what is your advice for current and future Skadden students?
Listen to the advice of program staff and professors. Everything they say is right! In college there are a lot of distractions. Sometimes I should’ve made my friends wait and studied more. Talk to alumni, talk to other cohorts. Talk to people in law school and those who have graduated from law school. All information is helpful. I wish I had asked more questions. The LSAT is very important, but it is not the only important part of your application. The whole package is important. Think about your interests and motivations. There are lots of great law schools. Try to explore what you want to do whether in the public or private field. Although law school is three years, you don’t have enough time to explore all the areas of law that may interest you. Start exploring now.
Did you ever feel self-doubt or think you might not be able to succeed, and if so, how did you overcome these feelings?
Yes, so many times. I received great advice from my law school dean on the first day of school. She told us to write on a piece of paper why we decided to go to law school. Because there will be many times when you will question why you are doing this. I would look at that piece of paper and remember why I wanted to go to law school and I would continue working hard.
Obviously, the Skadden program itself cannot guarantee success. Beyond what the Skadden program offers, what is necessary on the part of students?
Put your time and effort in to studying. Preparation for law school starts in college. The program gives you the tools but you must internalize them.
What would you tell a young student who is passionate about social issues but unsure whether law school is the best way to make a difference and is also concerned about how expensive it might be?
I definitely think law school is the best way to prepare yourself to make a difference. Having a legal background will allow you to do so many things, whether it is as a lawyer, in politics or in another area. CUNY was the best decision for me because it was public law oriented and it was financially affordable. Look for schools with lower tuition, and find scholarships. There are many scholarships for students interested in the public sector. Although I was admitted to other law schools, I chose CUNY because of the financial aspect and its focus on public interest work.