Focus On: Justice Lab with Professor Colleen Shanahan

Editor’s note: At Temple Law School, student advocates can hone skills, explore their professional identities, and work with community members in pursuit of solutions to real-world legal problems. We checked in with the professors who lead Temple’s in-house clinics to learn more about what they teach, and why. In this fifth post, we discuss Justice Lab with Professor Colleen Shanahan.

TLS: What is Justice Lab “about?”

Professor Shanahan: Justice Lab is a systemic advocacy clinic where students represent organizations (community groups, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies) to solve social justice problems in Philadelphia. Students develop and advance policy campaigns, design and pilot legal services and access to justice programs, draft legislation and provide legislative advocacy tools, and act as problem solvers and strategic planners.

TLS: What experiential opportunities does the class include?

Professor Shanahan: Justice Lab students develop expertise in finding creative solutions to legal problems. Students work closely with Prof. Shanahan, colleagues, clients, and community members. Students participate in a classroom component that addresses the theoretical and substantive bases of Justice Lab’s work and to reflect on the complex social and political aspects of legal problems. Classroom sessions are also an opportunity to reflect on ongoing client representation, and provide classroom skill development in support of client work, including interviewing, research and information gathering, policy, legislative, and strategic analysis, written and oral advocacy, collaboration, project planning and management, professional ethics, negotiation, and media advocacy skills.

Recent Justice Lab projects have addressed affordable housing, cash bail reform, forensic science reform, and traffic court reform for returning citizens. Our clients have included Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Defender Association of Philadelphia, Montgomery County Public Defender Office, Pennsylvania Innocence Project, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, Redeemed PA, and the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project.  You can read more about these projects, access Justice Lab reports, and read press coverage on our News & Publications page.

TLS: Who should take this course?

Professor Shanahan: Justice Lab prepares law students to have a career solving a variety of problems in different ways and in different jobs. Justice Lab draws a range of students, including:

  • students dedicated to a public interest career who want to learn how to address systemic problems in addition to represent individuals in court,
  • students who want to work on policy, legislative, or other government functions,
  • students headed to law firms who want to develop expertise to be used in pro bono practice or in a future position,
  • students who want to work as in-house counsel and have a clinic experience representing an organizational client, and
  • students who don’t know what they want to do but know they want a clinical experience and like the variety that Justice Lab offers.

TLS: Why do you teach this course?

Professor Shanahan: I teach Justice Lab because I believe creative, compassionate, dedicated Temple Law students can solve social justice problems that exist right outside our front door. I enjoy giving students the training, guidance, and feedback to empower them to do this work in Philadelphia and to carry the lessons from Justice Lab into their future careers.

I teach Justice Lab because I believe creative, compassionate, dedicated Temple Law students can solve social justice problems that exist right outside our front door. ~ Professor Colleen Shanahan

TLS: Can you describe a time when a student made a difference for a client in one of your clinic’s cases?

Professor Shanahan: In 2017, Justice Lab’s investigation and advocacy campaign ended Philadelphia’s decades-long practice of suing, and garnishing the wages of, working poor parents following a child’s incarceration. Hundreds of Philadelphia families are better able to take care of their children because of the incredible work of Justice Lab students. You can read more about the juvenile incarceration costs project and watch the NBC News story featuring Justice Lab student Wes Stevenson LAW’17.

TLS: What is one lesson you hope every students takes away after participating in Justice Lab?

Professor Shanahan: I hope every Justice Lab student leaves our semester together with confidence in their own ability to create change in the legal system, and a commitment to working for social justice regardless of what their official job is at any point in their legal career.

TLS: What is one of the most important lawyering skills a graduate needs and how is that skill developed in your clinic?

Professor Shanahan: A lawyer needs to know how to learn for herself, so that she can face and solve new problems in advocating for others. The Justice Lab experience intentionally introduces students to a variety of methods – for learning about the law, learning about our communities, solving problems, and working for others – that students can use in their future careers in a wide range of situations.

TLS: What does an average day look like in your clinic?

Professor Shanahan: Every day is different – that’s why it’s so much fun! Here’s what happened last Wednesday: my students had a supervision meeting with me where we discussed some strategic advocacy choices around Philadelphia housing law and how to counsel their client about them, then the student team met on their own to do some research and drafting, then we had seminar where we did a series of exercises introducing problem solving methods meant to generate creative advocacy ideas.