The rewards of public interest work at Southern Legal Counsel
“SLC is a small firm with a big impact,” said supervising attorney Kirsten Clanton on my very first day at Southern Legal Counsel, Inc. (SLC). The idea that litigation can be used as a vehicle to directly change legislation, policies, and practices, also known as “impact litigation,” for the benefit of those who would otherwise not have a voice in our legal system was always something I had in mind in deciding to pursue a law degree. The Florida Bar Foundation Public Interest Law Fellowship gave me the opportunity to do this first-hand as a law student, alongside passionate and committed attorneys at SLC.
In my time at SLC, I have had the unique opportunity to work on a variety of systemic issues, including the constitutional adequacy of Florida’s education system; Section 1983 civil rights claims involving the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments; special education in public schools; affordable housing; and constitutional and tort claims on behalf of homeless people.
One of the many things my experience at SLC has taught me is that our laws should be designed to uphold the dignity of everyone in our society, regardless of socioeconomics, housing status, disability, etc. The attorneys at SLC operate under the philosophy that regardless of ability to pay, everyone deserves access to our justice system and the benefit of high-quality legal representation.
Even if I will not work exclusively as a public interest lawyer in the future, this Fellowship has taught me the importance of carving out space in my legal career for public interest and pro bono work. Incorporating pro bono work into any legal career was also the theme of the recent event co-fellows Nicole Safker, Yvette Wiltshire and I planned at the law school. In March, Justice Fred Lewis of the Florida Supreme Court visited to talk about his “Justice Teaching” program, through which attorneys from varied practice areas volunteer to educate children about our justice system.
I would greatly encourage any law student reading this to get involved with public interest and pro bono opportunities while in school, and carry that commitment to equalizing access to our justice system into practice, regardless of the practice area.
Dominique McPherson is a 2011-12 Public Interest Law Fellow. The Public Interest Law Fellowship Program is funded by the Florida Bar Foundation to promote public interest law, and offered at the Levin College of Law by the Center for Governmental Responsibility.