Career Corner: UF Law grad living her dream, fighting for equal rights
When Shelbi Day (JD 02) was a little girl, she often played in the fenced backyard of her family’s modest home. She’d run and giggle, light brown curls bouncing, face beaming as she embraced the blue Kansas sky.
But one summer day, Shelbi’s carefree world was turned upside-down.
Parallel to the yard and house, just beyond the fence, ran a dirt-and-gravel alleyway where she saw a homeless man eating from a beige city Dumpster. Confused, she ran to her mom, perched upon the deck. “What is he doing; why is he doing that?!” the 4-year-old asked.
This was her first lesson in social injustice, Day said. “It broke my heart.”
As she grew up, she “noticed things like that … discrimination and other types of injustice.” More than a decade later, she would retell this lesson in her personal statement to the University of Florida Levin College of Law.
“I wanted to right those wrongs in the world as I saw them,” Day said.
Day shined at UF Law, starting with the Book Award in her property law class taught by Professor Berta Hernandez-Truyol.
Hernandez-Truyol recalled Day’s test vividly — though it was more than a decade ago when she first read it. “The paper was so good,” she said. Out of 200 or so, “it was one of the ones that stuck with you.”
Hernandez-Truyol asked her to be a research assistant, and Day was surprised — mostly that her professor’s scholarship was in human and women’s rights, exactly what she was interested in. She worked with Hernandez-Truyol for two years.
“Professor Hernandez really pushed me to follow my passion and do what I wanted to do, even when it was against the odds — and even when I was told by others at the law school that it ‘wouldn’t happen,’ ” Day said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without her mentoring and guidance.”
Hernandez-Truyol eventually co-authored two works with Day while she was still a student. Her talent and excellence in writing and research was so evident it would have been “unfair not to acknowledge it,” Hernandez-Truyol said.
“The unique way in which she applies herself is what makes her stand out,” Hernandez said thoughtfully. “She never left a stone unturned — always went the extra mile. That trait has served her well.”
Day began her civil rights career as an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Southern Legal Counsel in Gainesville where she worked on a project addressing the criminalization of homelessness. She eventually found her way to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
At the ACLU, she, along with a team of others, won a victory in Florida that overturned the law that prohibited gay people from adopting children. In the midst of this historic victory and the big-picture implications it would have in Florida, Day recalled something she’d learned at UF Law — to always remember the person at the center of every case.
While at a late dinner in a Miami restaurant with her coworkers, the client and one of the children he sought to adopt from foster care, the little boy scooted next to Day and laid his head onto her lap.
“I just remember looking down at him and getting tears in my eyes and thinking, ‘You know, we’re always focused on the statewide impact of removing this horrible law, and that is important,’” she said, “But it struck me … that this little boy is what this case is about and what matters most. …This little boy’s life is directly hanging in the balance. That moment has had a lasting impact on the way I think about my cases.”
Day’s heart for injustice hadn’t changed much since she saw the homeless man digging through the trash.
In January 2012, Day accepted a position as staff attorney for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Los Angeles office. Lambda Legal is the oldest and largest national legal organization committed to achieving full civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Perhaps her most notable efforts at the organization have been ones relating to issues of marriage equality. Day was a part of the legal team in Sevcik v. Sandoval, a federal case challenging Nevada’s laws that prohibit gay people from marrying, and in OPM v. Golinski in the Ninth Circuit. Golinski, which presented legal challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, had a certiorari petition pending in the U.S. Supreme Court when the Court decided to hear U.S. v. Windsor, the case that resulted in DOMA being struck down.
“Shelbi is thrilled that the work she is doing has a real-life impact on people and is helping others in a very real and tangible way,” said Annette Urena Tucker (JD 02), Day’s best friend and former UF Law classmate.
“It is amazing to me that she has worked on issues that have come before the Family Courts in Florida to the Supreme Court of the United States. I think at times she finds the work grueling but at the end of the day, she knows what she is doing is important and that helps to give her job satisfaction.”
Day noted that society is undergoing rapid change with respect to gay and lesbian rights.
“It’s a privilege to do the work I do, especially at this time in history,” she said. “I’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to work for wonderful organizations and with attorneys who literally have made history and changed the world for LGBT people. And, every day, I begin my day knowing I am living my dream of making the world a better, more just place.”
In her free time, Day enjoys anything active — running, cycling or white-water rafting — oftentimes with her fiancee, Jennifer. They were married this month, she said — “legally!”
“Believe that anything is possible,” Day said of the challenges of law school. “No matter what it is, find your passion and go for it. Work hard, stay committed, and create your own path.”