At the start of his third year at Cornell Law, Cyril Heron, JD, LLM ’19, was at the crossroads of passion and practicality. He was passionate about public service, but burdened by student loans. Most of his classmates were headed toward big law firms and big salaries. Heron was able to take the road less traveled–enabled by the support and inspiration of another Cornellian.
“I’ve always admired people who committed 100% to public service,” says Fred Rubinstein ’52, JD’55, who, together with his wife Susan, has provided financial support to law students and graduates passionate about applying their law degree to public service. Recently, they created a new Rubinstein Post Graduate Fellowship that allows a student to take a position at a nonprofit or government agency, which would not otherwise be able to afford to hire them. The Rubinstein’s philosophy of philanthropy allows young lawyers the freedom of choice.
“I no longer needed to fear or worry about sacrificing a job in the public sector in order to focus on managing my student loans,” says Heron, who now works as an Assistant District Attorney for the Manhattan DA. Heron was the recipient of a grant several years ago that helped him pay off his loans under another Rubinstein project, their Fund for Public Interest Low Income Protection Plan.
By providing Heron and others the opportunity to fulfill their dreams, Rubinstein was fulfilling his own—the dreams of a young boy arrived in this country through Ellis Island. “To me, this was the land of opportunity when my family succeeded in fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. The principles that this country was built on are so important,” says Rubinstein. “People who go into public service are valuable and very special. I want to help them strengthen our democracy in a fully committed way.”
Similarly, Susan Rubinstein, who passed away in December 2022, was committed to democratic values and a fierce advocate for voting rights and political reform through her work with New York Common Cause, where she was chairman of the board. She majored in government at Smith College, graduated magna cum laude, and got her master’s degree at the Tufts School of International Diplomacy. After Susan and Fred met at a dinner party, they bonded quickly over their shared interest in political and social causes. “One of Susan’s biggest concerns was the absence of civics courses in education and the lack of a thorough understanding of American history. That’s why it was so important for us to support young lawyers who choose to make a difference through government or non-profit work.”
That was not a choice young Fred could make. Refugees from Nazi-occupied Belgium and Vichy France, Rubinstein’s family (his parents and younger brother) emigrated to the U.S. in 1942. Just days before they were to be committed to a French internment camp (which turned out to be a stage to Auschwitz), the Rubinsteins were able to persuade the chief of police in Nice to issue them a permit to leave France. This enabled them to secure passage on a ship to Casablanca. From there, they boarded a Portuguese cargo ship with 200 other refugees, all sleeping in hammocks in the cargo hold on a 35-day trip across the ocean. The family settled on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and, though he endured teases and taunts (“being called Frenchie or Belgie as a child”), Rubinstein never lost faith in the American dream and credits Cornell for helping him achieve it.
As a Cornell undergraduate, Rubinstein majored in government and history. His decision to go to law school was to attempt to delay service in the Korean War. At first, he had a hard time securing a job after graduation because he had been classified 1A and law firms had been unwilling to hire 1A’s. Ultimately—after brief stints supporting himself, first as a movie usher and then an elevator operator—he went on to a long and successful career in corporate law, believing that Cornell had put him in a position to be accepted by and fully integrated into this land of opportunity.
“Cornell gave me the right kind of cachet,” says Rubinstein. He wanted to give back to both his alma mater and his adopted country in meaningful ways. His legal work with start-ups, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs showed him what wealth could do to advance public good. His philanthropic commitment to Cornell Law is designed to bolster underfunded programs and inspire others to “do the greatest good” through the practice of law.
“Few people are going into the public service sector these days, despite an ever-growing need,” says Cornell graduate Amanda Kleinrock JD ’11, who is now an attorney-advisor with the Social Security Administration. “It was difficult enough starting out as a new attorney without the added burden of managing student loan payments on a limited legal aid starting salary.” She was able to sustain a public interest career thanks to support from the Rubinsteins and hopes to be in a position one day to encourage others to go into public service.
Adds Cyril Heron: “Through public service, young attorneys and attorneys writ large come to understand the impact our profession has on society, both beneficial and detrimental, and can thereby work towards making our country, society, and world a better place to live in. Whether one is a prosecutor, defense counsel, court attorney, non-profit attorney or any other public sector position, I find that our roles are integral to keeping us and our civilization from devolving into the Hobbesian image of life in nature.”