Professor Colleen Shanahan
Professor Colleen Shanahan

Associate Clinical Professor Colleen Shanahan hopes that her scholarship and teaching advance our understanding of social justice problems, the best solutions for them, and how lawyers can be a creative part of social change – and she believes that Temple Law and the Sheller Center for Social Justice are the perfect place to do this work.

Dean JoAnne Epps agrees. “Professor Shanahan’s approach to teaching social justice advocacy aligns beautifully with the work already underway at the Sheller Center,” Epps remarked. “Her experience, insight, and passion for teaching will be of wonderful benefit to our students.”

Shanahan joined the Temple Law faculty in July, and says it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. She describes her colleagues as, “an extraordinary collection of scholars who think creatively and constructively about what the law should be,” and the law school itself as the perfect home for her teaching and scholarship. “Temple’s historical commitment to advocacy was ahead of the curve in legal education and translates to a deep expertise in teaching future advocates and providing access to the profession,” Shanahan says. “I’m thrilled to be part of this community.”

Advocacy, specifically at the systemic level, is what Shanahan has come to Temple to teach. She is the architect of Justice Lab, a new clinic at the Sheller Center that will challenge students to expand their conceptions of lawyering and advocacy. “The focus in Justice Lab is on systemic advocacy and social justice problem-solving,” Shanahan explains. “It’s about figuring out how to improve access to justice and solve legal problems when litigation is not the right option.”

While other clinics focus on non-traditional advocacy as a complement to litigation, Justice Lab is unique in its explicit focus on systemic advocacy. “Justice Lab students develop their ability to advocate for systemic change, by working for organizational clients that have come to us with a social justice project.” Shanahan says. “For example, an organization may ask Justice Lab to gather data and talk to stakeholders about juvenile detention practices in Philadelphia, and to develop and implement policy changes to prevent unnecessary detention of juveniles in adult facilities.”

The clinic intentionally takes on projects that last only a semester so that Justice Lab students work on a project from start to finish. Shanahan says that this approach “asks students to completely embrace the role of attorney, advisor, and advocate and gives students ownership over their advocacy,” an important perspective for students, whether they pursue social justice employment or other legal jobs after graduation.

Shanahan is perfectly poised to do this work. After earning her J.D. from Columbia in 2003, she clerked first for the Honorable Michael M. Baylson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and then for the Honorable Jane R. Roth of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. She is an experienced attorney, practicing at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C., and at Hangley, Aronchick, Segal, & Pudlin in Philadelphia, and has served with a variety of professional and community associations addressing civil rights and access to justice-related issues.

It was during her time at Hangley that Shanahan was invited to serve as a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School, and realized her passion for teaching. “It was like a light came on,” Shanahan says, “and I knew that this was what I needed to do full-time.” She accepted a position at Georgetown Law, serving as a clinical teaching fellow before joining the faculty and directing the Community Justice Project. When she heard about the creation of the Sheller Center, which she describes as, “an extraordinary commitment by Temple Law to think critically and creatively about how the Temple community can help to solve Philadelphia’s most intractable problems,” she knew that the opportunity to develop a clinic focused on social justice and systemic advocacy – and to return to Philadelphia – was too good to pass up.

Shanahan’s excitement about Justice Lab is also due, in part, to the inaugural class of students set to take the course beginning in January 2016. “Temple’s students are so impressive – the inaugural Justice Lab class is a group of talented, resourceful and resilient individuals who are going to do great things,” she says.

It’s clear from a look at Shanahan’s CV that she has thought, and written, a lot about both access to justice and clinical legal education. “My scholarship is motivated by a desire to understand the experiences of millions of Americans who navigate our civil courts without an attorney, and about how legal services in various forms can shape this experience for the better,” she says. She is a prolific scholar, publishing widely and speaking around the country. She is also, somewhat to her own surprise, an empiricist. “Many of us concerned with access to justice recognize that we have not quantified what is happening to low-income litigants in our civil courts. My expertise and relationships as a clinical law professor provide access to data and the ability to shape research questions that both advance our scholarly understanding and help productively shape the ongoing work of access to justice.” She has been honored for this work, selected as a Bellow Scholar by the Association of American Law Schools and as a Branstetter New Voices in Civil Justice scholar by Vanderbilt Law School.

But it is her work with students that fuels Shanahan’s passion for her job. “For me, the best part of being a law professor is facilitating moments of transformative learning,” she explains. “I aim to help students acquire knowledge and skills, but the bigger challenge is to design experiences that enable students to reflect on and analyze the law and their role as attorneys in a broader world, and as a result to develop lifelong habits of independent thinking, reflection, and advocacy.”