UF Law grad, students work to reform Florida’s public education system
By Erin Carr
Ask Kirsten Clanton (JD 05) what she enjoys doing in her free time, and she’ll respond “community service” immediately followed by “as well as horseback riding and writing science fiction.”
As director of the Southern Legal Counsel’s Ending Homelessness Project, co-counsel of the firm’s historic education reform case, organizer of the “Ask-A-Lawyer” Project, and past chair of the Public Interest Law Section of The Florida Bar, Clanton’s personal and professional commitment to social justice advocacy is virtually indistinguishable.
“I believe in the oath I took when I became a lawyer, ‘I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed,’” Clanton said. “There are too many injustices to name. Service is my way of fighting back, of hopefully making this world a better place.”
A triple Gator, Clanton earned her B.A, M.A. and J.D. at the University of Florida and has chosen to make Gainesville her home. Having spent the last 18 years as a member of the Gainesville community, Clanton has made it her mission to apply her legal education to improving access to justice for Gainesville and Florida residents alike through her work with SLC.
“SLC was founded to represent the unrepresented and to fight for broad-based systemic change in Florida,” Clanton said. “Too many people cannot afford to hire a lawyer so we use our fiscal and human resources to fight for the most vulnerable people in our state — persons experiencing homelessness, persons with disabilities, children and others who otherwise would not have access to the justice system.”
These days, the bulk of Southern Legal Counsel’s time is dedicated to Citizens for Strong Schools v. State Bd. of Educ., a landmark education reform case that involves a constitutional challenge pertaining to the adequacy of state funding of the Florida public education system. The case, which was originally filed in 2009 and has already been up to the Florida Supreme Court and back on a political question, is slated for a five-week trial to begin in March 2016. To assist with trial preparations and provide students with an opportunity to develop substantive legal skills, Clanton has created a pro bono litigation team consisting of UF Law students.
“One of my favorite parts of my job is working with our pro bono law students. They bring so much passion and energy to this work, breathing new life into our office. We litigate complex civil rights cases so our students get a broad range of litigation experience, especially legal research and writing. In the process, they have the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to our work. We have a long line of SLC alumni and we love being a part of training the students for their legal careers and helping open doors for them in the future,” she said.
The involvement of UF Law students in the public interest-oriented work of Southern Legal Counsel has proven to be a mutually beneficial partnership, allowing students to gain practical legal experience while contributing to social justice litigation that seeks to protect and promote the constitutional and human rights of vulnerable communities.
Marisol Silva (2L) is one of six UF Law students serving as a pro bono legal intern with this semester. Silva, who has a personal connection to Southern Legal Counsel ’s education reform initiatives, is appreciative for the opportunity to be able to contribute to such meaningful work.
“Southern Legal Counsel ‘s education case is advocating for English language learners and minorities in Florida, students that are currently left behind due to current education policies,” Silva said. “As a Latina who was once an English language learner, serving as a pro bono volunteer allows me to give back to my community and gain invaluable legal experience. From sitting in on depositions to analyzing expert reports, my experience with SLC has been an amazing one thus far.”
Madonna Snowden (3L) is equally grateful to be able to serve as a pro bono legal intern on the litigation team.
“I feel honored to be working with SLC on a first impression education reform case that may change Florida’s public education system and ensure that all students receive a quality education,” said Snowden. “The work I am doing at SLC is substantive work that is used for trial. I get to participate in trial strategy meetings, prepare motions, and attend depositions. I feel that I have a chance to contribute in a meaningful way and have opportunities that I would not have working at a larger law firm.”
To Snowden, as with the other student trial team members, pro bono service is more than simply a concept discussed in Professional Responsibility coursework — it is an integral aspect of the legal profession that demands daily practice.
“Pro bono means ‘for the public good.’ Our society gives attorneys an exclusive license to practice law and I believe that as a future attorney it is my obligation to use this privilege to further the interest of those that have endowed me with this position,” Snowden said.
Instilling the importance of pro bono service in young legal professionals is a passion of Clanton’s. As both the supervising attorney for Southern Legal Counsel’s legal internship program and a co-instructor for Social Justice Lawyering at the Levin College of Law, Clanton’s mentorship has been instrumental in aiding students to understand their professional responsibilities as well as developing an appreciation of the personal satisfaction that accompanies community engagement.
Second-year law student Irene Sepulveda credits her participation in the nonprofit’s advocacy efforts for inspiring her interest in pro bono service.
“It has been an absolute privilege externing at SLC these past several months. What initially attracted me to SLC was its devotion to ensuring that all people, especially vulnerable and often overlooked populations, have equal access to their basic human rights. It would surprise a lot of people to know not only of the amount of basic human rights that the homeless are often deprived of, but also that they are frequently criminalized on a national scale for being homeless,” said Sepulveda. “I have learned this and more through my externship at SLC, as the attorneys have inspired me to use my legal education to help those who cannot help themselves.”
With the support of the UF Law community and the added inspiration of her most-admired author, Clanton feels ready to tackle any challenges that lie ahead.
“Maya Angelou is quoted as saying that ‘equal rights, fair play and justice are like the air — we all have it or none of us has it,’” Clanton said. “As members of the legal community, we have a duty to safeguard the rights of those who historically have not had access to justice, otherwise we all stand to lose the principles we claim to uphold as attorneys.”