Gift Endows Public Interest/Public Service Fellows Program
With a $3.3 million commitment, the Dale and Max Berger Family Foundation ensures sustainable support for students pursuing careers in public interest and public service.
When Max Berger ’71 was living with his parents in Flushing, Queens, studying at Baruch College, and working part time at an accounting firm to help his family, he dreamed of going to law school. But he knew he couldn’t afford it.
“My parents were working-class people and didn’t really have any financial resources to speak of,” he remembers. “I had to get a scholarship.”
And he did, to Columbia Law School.
As a student, Berger was an editor of the Columbia Survey of Human Rights Law (now the Columbia Human Rights Law Review) under Professor Louis Henkin and worked part time for securities lawyer Sidney B. Silverman ’57. After graduating, he joined the law firm Kreindler & Kreindler before opening Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann in 1983. The Financial Times has described the firm as “one of the most powerful securities class action law firms in the United States.” He represented investors in five of the 10 largest securities-fraud recoveries in history, leading The New York Times to dub him the “investors’ billion-dollar fraud fighter.” Among many successful cases, Berger secured the largest shareholder recoveries arising from the financial crisis in 2012. In 2013, he was named by The National Law Journal as one of the 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America.
“Most of the friends I grew up with went on to working-class jobs,” Berger says. “I was fortunate to be able to break out of that career path and have a very successful professional career. I have always felt it was my obligation to give back to Baruch and Columbia because both schools were so instrumental in my success.”
This latest gift from Berger to Columbia Law School—through the foundation he created with his wife, Dale—includes $3 million to endow the Law School’s Public Interest/Public Service (PI/PS) Fellows Program and an additional $300,000 for program support. This gift brings Berger’s and his firm’s contributions to over $6.6 million in support of public interest students, graduates, and related programming at the Law School.
Launched in 2019 and operated by the Office of Social Justice Initiatives, the PI/PS Fellows Program supports a community of students who are passionate about careers in the public interest, human rights, nonprofit, or government sectors. It will now be known as the Max Berger ’71 Public Interest/Public Service Fellows Program.
“When the fellows program was created, we knew that an up-front investment would be required to get it off the ground and support its growth in the near term. We also knew that, in order for the program to thrive and become embedded within the Law School, a sustainable source of funding would be required,” says Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law. “This generous gift from the Dale and Max Berger Family Foundation not only sets the fellows program on a stable course for the long term, but it is also an incredible acknowledgment of its importance in preparing our students for careers of service—in the law and in support of a fair and just society. I am personally grateful to Max for his continuing generosity.”
Berger says he felt a strong connection immediately upon learning of the new PI/PS Fellows Program. He loved the program’s community-building approach, which was essential to his decision to endow the program.
“There’s a certain power that properly focused and collaborative groups have in that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts,” he says. “A formal structure where students who are committed to careers in public interest and public service can come together on a regular basis will help fortify these students as they move forward in their careers.”
Students are accepted into the three-year PI/PS Fellows Program as 1Ls. They receive mentoring, professional development, invitations to social events, and career and curricular counseling throughout their time on campus. Approximately 100 students—divided among the three J.D. cohorts—benefit from the program each year, ensuring that Columbia Law School can continue to attract top public-service-minded students for the long term.
“This gift is truly significant. It means that Max really believes in this signature program we created in direct response to input from students, faculty, administrators, and other stakeholders about what was needed to support and nurture the next generation of change agents,” says Erica Smock ’95, assistant dean and dean for Social Justice Initiatives and Public Service Lawyering. “These funds will enable us to permanently embed the program within the fabric of Columbia Law School.”
Devi Patel, director of the PI/PS Fellows Program, calls the gift “a profound investment” and “an extreme vote of confidence” in the fellows. “This gift will make an indelible impact,” she says.
The Bergers have a long history of supporting Columbia Law School’s public interest programs. In 1999 and 2001, Berger’s firm created the Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann Public Interest Law Fellowship, and the couple also endowed the Dale and Max Berger Public Interest Law Fellowship. The awards provide graduates working in the public sector with enhanced loan repayment benefits for five years after graduation—providing recipients with further support to “stay the course” in public interest careers.
Berger, who celebrated his 50th reunion this year, is a member of the Dean’s Council and previously served on the Board of Visitors. In 2011, he received the Law School’s highest honor, the Medal for Excellence. Berger is also a member of the Public Interest/Public Service Council, a group of high-level alumni who provide support and advice to the Law School’s students and young alumni. In addition to his many contributions to the Law School, he is chair of the Baruch College Board of Trustees, and he and his wife are actively involved in the Andrew Goodman Foundation, Her Justice, and Women for Women International, among many other charitable endeavors.