After graduating from the College of Charleston, Kim Shelton, like any other college graduate, was just trying to figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. This trial-and-error process landed Kim in various odd jobs, including working for Census 2000. “The geographic area I worked in was very close to the community that I lived in, but socially and economically a world apart,” she explained. “I walked door to door for months in a mostly low-income community gathering data that would hopefully ensure or encourage more spending for programs in the community.” This was the experience that planted the seed in Kim to work with and help the underprivileged for the rest of her life.
While at Vermont Law School, Kim found herself splitting her time between her favorite things: environmental activism and public interest work. After graduation, she found herself back in Charleston with an opportunity to be involved with South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS).
Out of all her cases, the one that has stuck with Kim was during her first year in practice; a case in which the client’s parental rights were being terminated. The client, a young mother separated from her children for years, had been bogged down in the system after her husband abused one of her children. At the time of trial, the client had done everything that was asked of her and DSS finally supported reunification. After a six-day trial, however, her rights were terminated.
“I was heartbroken to see the injustice of the situation and began to think that I was not cut out for this line of work,” Kim confessed. “Fortunately, I was also involved in the appeal, which we won, and our client was finally reunited with her family. It restored my faith in the justice system,” she said, smiling.
Speaking of children – we asked Kim what advice she would give her son if he decided to work in the legal profession. She made it clear that anyone who enters the legal field needs to feel passionately about it and the kinds of cases they want to take. “I think that many people go into the legal field for the perceived prestige or financial gain and lose their zeal for the profession, their cases and their clients,” she explained. “It shows in their work and their attitude toward other attorneys. I don’t think every case has to be the stuff of a John Grisham novel, but I think it’s important to have a deeper sense of purpose behind your practice.”
Kim has found her sense of purpose working with the Veteran Affairs Homeless Justice Project. “My father is a veteran and, in general, veterans are a very sympathetic and rewarding group of individuals to work with,” she said. “We started discussing how to start a clinic where we could establish ourselves once a month and meet with veterans to discuss their legal issues. We started the clinic in the fall, and so far it has been very successful.”
Outside of the office, Kim has created a program where she trains and supervises volunteer law students each semester in assisting victims of domestic violence. The idea for the program came when the Coordinated Community Response to Domestic Violence (CCRDV) was beginning to notice the relatively poor quality of Petitions for Orders of Protection being filed by unrepresented victims. The victims’ lack of knowledge about how to testify before the court at their hearings was also a concern. “The original goal of CCRDV was to have private attorneys and law students representing all victims through a clinic setting at the courthouse,” she said. “This was not an immediately practical goal, so I offered to start a project with the Charleston School of Law in which I would train and supervise students to assist victims with this process.”
After working with SCLS for almost eight years, Kim has been able to see the efforts in the state provide access to our legal system, but know there is still a lot of work to be done. “I want to provide increased access to the justice system to everyone,” she said. “This will require a change in attitude towards unrepresented people in order to provide them with enough information that they can begin to understand the legal system and what might be required of them.”
For all of her efforts, Kim was selected as the 2013 Ellen Hines Smith Legal Services Lawyer of the Year. The award is copresented by the Foundation and the SC Access to Justice Commission. Kim said she is incredibly grateful to those who nominated her for this award. “I don’t expect or anticipate being given an award for the work I do,” she said, “so it is very nice to realize that my level of commitment to my job and the low-income community is recognized by someone with whom I work.”
Want to get involved with SCLS? Contact Andrea Loney, executive director, at (803) 744-4179 or firstname.lastname@example.org.