Q&A: Shannon Seim ('19) - Volunteer Lawyers Project

Shannon Seim

by Bobby Larsen

Shannon Seim is a 2019 graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Law. She currently works for the Nebraska State Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project as EVOLVES Program Attorney and Clinic Facilitator. Recently, as part of the National Celebration of Pro Bono, which takes place annually during the last week of October, Shannon answered some questions for JDs Advancing Justice. Responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

Could you speak about the Volunteer Lawyers Project and, specifically, the EVOLVES Program? Is it unique to Nebraska? How was it developed? 

The Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) provides interested legal professional volunteers the tools needed to incorporate meaningful pro bono work they are passionate about into their practice. Pro bono work includes entirely voluntary as well as reduced fee services. VLP works closely with several non-profit legal service providers through the Nebraska Pro Bono Collaborative. We help recruit attorneys interested in doing pro bono work for our partner organizations and our four main programs tailored to fill Nebraska’s justice gap: a free cyber legal clinic, free pop-up legal clinics, courthouse help desks throughout Nebraska, and no fee and reduced fee case placement

My position is grant funded, so I have two related but distinct jobs as the EVOLVES Program Attorney and Clinic Facilitator. 

As the EVOLVES Program Attorney, I conduct reduced fee case placement. EVOLVES, which stands for Essential Volunteers Offering Legal Services to Victims Ensuring Safety, is funded by a grant from the Nebraska Crime Commission and is similar to VLP’s former LAPTOP program. It focuses on providing a reduced fee for attorneys practicing in rural areas who are willing to represent a victim of a crime in a civil suit related to the crime perpetrated against them. This usually means an attorney will represent a domestic violence survivor in a divorce, custody, or other family law matter. Victims of domestic violence often suffer social isolation and financial abuse; so, disproportionately it seems in these cases the adverse party can secure an attorney. The victim is left to fight for his or her home or child custody unrepresented, often against someone of whom they are terrified. EVOLVES is a small program with limited funds; we cannot fill the family law civil justice gap in Nebraska. However, we can make a dent in some of the worst cases. 

More than half of low-income individuals seeking legal assistance need help with a family law matter. Many attorneys cannot afford to take standard family law cases because they can be very time-consuming, and firms need attorneys to be billing hours. VLP leadership is keenly aware of this need and wanted to address it.  EVOLVES helps bridge this gap while providing financial support to attorneys who may not otherwise be able to provide pro bono assistance. 

In my role as EVOLVES Program Attorney, specifically, I review cases that come in and try to determine the legal need for the applicant to be represented. Then, I work with the EVOLVES Paralegal and VLP team to attempt to place every case we accept with an attorney. I make sure invoices received are reasonable, track our budget trajectory, and provide EVOLVES Attorney Volunteers with resources to help them represent the client.

The other part of my job is Clinic Facilitator. In this role, I help facilitate VLP’s cyber and pop up free legal clinics. VLP’s cyber clinic is Nebraska Free Legal Answers, which low-income Nebraskans can use to submit three civil legal questions each year. Nebraska attorneys volunteer to take questions; it is a great and popular way for people to get pro bono hours in because it is accommodating for attorneys’ busy schedules. 

Our pop up free legal clinics occur across Nebraska. They have been hosted in Grand Island, Fremont, Omaha, and Lincoln. These events are called “Lawyers on the Prairie,” “Lawyers on Main Street,” and “Lawyers in the City,” depending on where they are held.  We host these events in partnership with non-profit legal providers and recruit private attorney volunteers to answer civil legal questions for individuals living near or below the poverty line. The events are held in community colleges, public libraries, and community centers. During National Pro Bono Week, we hosted one at Lincoln’s Health 360. 

Do you think “low bono” work has become more common? If so, what are the ramifications of that?

This is a tough and great question because I think the lines of where pro bono stops and best business practice starts, at some point, become blurry. EVOLVES is serving individuals who cannot afford to hire attorneys; while attorneys are paid from grant funds, clients do not pay. However, as a law student, I researched different innovative legal service delivery systems in looking for a job because my Professional Responsibilities professor, Richard Dooling, emphasized the importance of new business models in law. 

The legal profession, like all professions, has and needs to continue to adapt to increasingly dynamic versions of technology and particularly artificial intelligence. Adjusting to technology and science in a profession built on exacting precedent is tough, but technology keeps moving faster. This reality is threatening to some; but, we also know that the income gap between middle class Americans and wealthy Americans is widening and that increasingly, Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck. If middle class American families must choose between paying a lawyer when it means they won’t be able to pay their mortgage or their daycare bill, and paying a much less expensive online legal bot service with convincing marketing, people will choose the bot. Even for families with more of a financial cushion, the idea of agreeing to pay an attorney hundreds of dollars each hour for an undetermined amount of hours is pretty intimidating, so I think flat fee services become appealing. 

Low bono models are growing nationally because they are desperately needed given the times and realities in which we live. In Nebraska, I suspect some, probably many, firms charge what a client can afford, particularly in rural areas; however, I think this is not well publicized. One of the hardest things about working at VLP is that so many Nebraska attorneys and legal professionals are already making so many sacrifices and doing such selfless, great work. We’d like to recognize their contributions, but they’re much too humble to publicize their volunteerism. This humility is charming on a personal and deeply Nebraskan-modest level, but we really want and need to support attorneys doing pro bono for the good of the legal profession and the state. 

I hope that our discussions and promotions of pro bono, low bono, limited scope, and reduced fee work help all the attorneys who are already doing it step forward and seek resources we have available to them so that they can keep doing the same amount of work but make a bigger impact.

                                               Shannon receiving her award at Justice Jam 2019   

You are a recent co-recipient of the Nebraska College of Law’s annual Student Award for Outstanding Impact through Pro Bono Service. What led you to put an emphasis on doing pro bono work as a student? 

I spent five years working in Nebraska between undergrad and law school.  Throughout that time I worked with low income communities, especially new American populations, and for two of those years I was an AmeriCorps Member. 

The widely known unofficial AmeriCorps motto is “get things done.” I love that motto. I think my parents raised me with that motto. Much of my pre-law professional success came from adopting that motto as an attitude. My first year of law school was hard because there is so much focus on theory, I felt I couldn’t accomplish many things that were tangible in the real world. 

To compound issues, by the time exams came in the winter of 1L year I was nine months pregnant with my first child; and, the 2016 election had just wrapped up. I felt like I was bringing a human into a country, that whatever your political ideologies are, was not as hopeful as the country in which I was raised. It was a terrible feeling.

My mom and dad were always very involved with our community. For most of my childhood, my mom, Lou Ann Linehan, was Chuck Hagel’s Campaign Manager and then Chief of Staff. Growing up, all my friends would go to ballet or soccer after school, and I’d go stuff envelopes, go door-to-door canvassing, or hold campaign signs on Dodge Street. We spent so many weekends traveling around Nebraska doing parades and visiting towns, meeting people who cared deeply about how government was impacting their lives and community. 

My family moved to the Washington DC area in June of 2001 because my mom began working for the US State Department (she would later return to Senator Hagel’s office as Chief of Staff). On September 11 of that year, I was in my seventh-grade history classroom eighteen miles away from the pentagon when the airplane struck. Some people in my school lost both parents. The DC Anthrax attacks killed my mother’s colleagues less than a month later. I remember begging my mom not to go back to work. She reminded me of all the people we met at parades and county fairs across Nebraska, especially all of the members of the Greatest Generation and the veterans of foreign wars and their families. She pointed out that so many people had made so many sacrifices and risked so much for our country. She reminded me of how her office had been (and would again be) between Senator Hagel’s and Senator McCain’s offices and how she was currently working at Secretary Colin Powell’s State Department. She reminded me of the immeasurable amount each of those men and their families had sacrificed for our county. She told me she absolutely had to keep showing up to work because she had the opportunity to help our country. 

My mom did a great job balancing her career and mothering four children. Growing up, I never remember feeling jealous of the attention her career demanded. I only ever felt, “That’s so cool my mom is helping all these people. She is working so hard to make our world better. I am proud of her.” Hoping my kids (I had another baby right after graduating law school) will feel that way about me someday inspires me.  

So, with all of that in mind, right on the cusp of becoming a mom, I wasn’t sure if law school was the right place for me to be in the fall of 2016. I felt unproductive in a world that needed help. I remember Professor [Jessica] Shoemaker said during the Equal Justice Society (EJS) Welcome for 1Ls that she had also felt unsure her first year of law school, but found a way to make it work through a group similar to EJS.  Given that Professor Shoemaker was also an AmeriCorps member, I think it makes sense that 1L year was strange for her too. 

Through EJS, the Community Legal Education Project (CLEP), working with Professor Shoemaker and so many other wonderful students, faculty and staff members at the College of Law, I was able to start engaging in meaningful pro bono work. Pro bono work assured me law school was the place I should be. 

Pro bono work also helped me learn legal skills and begin building a reputation in the legal community. When I graduated from undergrad, I felt like employers did not care about the volunteerism on my resume; when I graduated from law school, it came up in every interview and was sometimes the reason I was invited to the interview. 

If you make it to law school, you have a unique opportunity to help others, your community, and our country. I know it is hard because you are busy; but it is not that hard. 

Do you think legal employers are becoming more aware of the importance of lawyers doing pro bono work, regardless of the field of law they work in? How can a busy law student or lawyer make time for pro bono work? 

Working at VLP gives me the opportunity to meet so many incredibly successful attorneys and judges who have thriving careers, volunteer regularly, and achieve work-life harmony. It is similar to how so many former EJS Presidents have graduated with highest distinction and gone on to very prestigious clerkships and careers. 

Recently, Luke Klinker, a partner at Fraser Stryker said, “Taking just one case can impact that client’s life, and you would be surprised at the momentum it gives you, as the attorney, moving forward in your representation of all clients.” I love that quote. Pro bono makes people love legal work, and when you love your career you are better at it. 

My boss, Laurie Heer Dale always says, “most people go to law school to help people.” I think that is true, too, and too many people lose sight of it during some point in their career and risk burning out. People should not think of pro bono work as an additional obligation, but rather a pillar of their career. Doing that can look very different for every attorney and law student, but if they’re not sure where to start, they should reach out to VLP!

Bobby Larsen is a second-year student at the University of Nebraska College of Law and a contributing writer for JDs Advancing Justice. Bobby also serves as Vice President of the Equal Justice Society, Community Legal Education Project, and American Constitution Society and as a member of the Student-Faculty Honor Committee, Student Faculty Committee and Pro Bono Committee. He is the college's Equal Justice Works Student Representative and an ex officio member of the Nebraska State Bar Association's Legal Services Committee.