Alumnus Encourages Public Service Work with Gift to Fund Fellowships

Many law students enter law school with the goal of someday working in public interest, but those students often can't afford to take the unpaid summer internships that lead to those careers.

Herbert L. Caplan, '57, recognized this need and made a gift to the Law School to establish a paid fellowship for eight students to work in public interest after their second year of law school. But this is different than other summer fellowships. Caplan Fellows must work in role that involves them in public policy, the type of position that would allow them to help find solutions to problems. 

"Herb Caplan had a vision for inspiring students to follow a path that would make the world a better place," said Lisa Guynn, Senior Director of Development. "Through his generosity, the Caplan Fellows will gain valuable public-interest experience that places them at the heart of pressing social issues."

Caplan, who also is a '52 alum of the College, dedicated his entire career to public service. He retired in 1998 after spending the bulk of his career as First Assistant Illinois Attorney General and in the City of Chicago's Law Department. Caplan remains involved in Chicago neighborhood issues.

This isn't his first act of generosity to the Law School. He also established the Herbert L. Caplan Award Fund several years ago to honor two second-year students who demonstrate excellence or special promise in pursuing service in public interest. The students are awarded a scholarship based on an essay about the public-interest work they performed the summer before their second year.

Caplan's time in the Illinois Attorney General's Office provided some of the most fulfilling work of his career. When he started there in 1970, the Illinois Environmental Protection Act and the new Illinois state constitution were being enacted. He and his colleagues were charged with adapting state practices to the new laws and defining policies of the Attorney General's Office.

"We felt that we were doing the people's work," he said.

Caplan said he funded the summer fellowship to motivate young attorneys into a career path he found so satisfying.

"A large percentage of people go to law school because they are expecting to do work that will benefit society," he said.  "After graduating, they can pretty quickly become dissatisfied with the priorities of private practice. I know how much satisfaction I received from the kind of work I did and I know other people would really love to have the same kind of work environment."

Caplan Fellows were chosen for their dedication to public-interest law. They were then paired with organizations such as the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to gain experience in policy work.

"These students were incredibly appreciative that they were able to be paired with such great organizations and received funding for positions that otherwise are unpaid," said Abbie Willard, Associate Dean for Career Services and Public Initiatives. "The experience they're gaining in public policy is invaluable. Without the establishment of the Caplan Fellowship, these students may have had to stray from their long-term goals of working in public interest."

In easing students' burden of working without pay, Caplan says he also wanted to show students that they won't always have to make sacrifices to follow a career in public service.

"Working in public service doesn't have to mean they won't be able to support their families," Caplan said. "You can have a satisfying career and have a place in the economy."