NPILF Spotlight: Kelly Shanahan, Earth Law Center

Kelly is pictured from the chest up smiling at the camera. She has long blonde hair and is wearing glasses. There is greenery and red flowers behind her in the background.

Kelly Shanahan

by Kelly Shanahan

The Nebraska Public Interest Law Fund (NPILF) provides a limited number of stipends to University of Nebraska College of Law students who secure unpaid public interest positions with a host organization that serves an unmet legal need.

2L Kelly Shanahan, a 2021 NPILF recipient, worked with Earth Law Center, which is based in Boulder, CO. Kelly shared more about her experience below.

Can you describe the work or mission of your host organization?

Earth Law Center (ELC) is a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that works on the international grassroots movement known as earth law. The organization’s mission is to transform the law to recognize, honor, and protect Nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive, and evolve. As a part of this mission, ELC works with numerous groups to create new legal frameworks that are eco-centric rather than anthropocentric.

What were your main responsibilities? How did you spend your time?

Every day at ELC was different than the one before. I assisted in developing legal strategies for a few Indigenous organizations seeking to enforce the Rights of Nature, I helped write memorandums on the legal authority of the U.S. government to breach dams, I analyzed potential violations of the Clean Water Act, I helped draft new laws and city ordinances seeking to establish legal Rights of Nature. I even gained experience on a few international legal issues in the Balkans, Panama, Canada, and Nigeria.

What drew you to this type of work and how did you find/secure this particular opportunity?

I’ve always been passionate about Nature and legal protections for wildlife. In undergrad, I minored in Wildlife Care & Handling and became extremely interested in captive wildlife issues. During my first semester of law school, I had been googling and came across an article detailing the efforts of the Lummi Nation located in Washington State and how they recently obtained the Earth Law Center as counsel to represent them in their attempts to free a captive orca held at Miami Seaquarium. After reading this article, I knew I had to apply for the ELC summer internship program and be a part of these efforts.

What did you most enjoy about the experience?

Earth Law Center has shaped my thinking about the world in ways that I had never before considered. And I think that is what I enjoyed most about the experience—the fact that I learned to take the radical approach to the law and be unafraid of changing the status quo. While I had considered the rights of animals before beginning law school, given my background, I had never before considered that a River should have legal rights—the right to represent itself in governmental proceedings, the right to flow free from obstruction, the right to have thriving native biodiversity, the right to be free of pollution, and most importantly, the right to be able to enforce these other rights. I will be forever grateful to the Earth Law Center for teaching me how to switch the narrative and look at the law from a new perspective.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

The biggest challenge I faced as an intern with the Earth Law Center was learning how to interact with the nay-sayers. Being that ELC is on the front lines of changing the way the law works, we receive a decent amount of pushback from people who believe that environmental law is “perfect the way it is” and that further changes aren’t needed because we already have the big federal laws like the ESA and the CWA. Working at ELC taught me how to approach bringing about needed change when it can sometimes feel like the system is against you. The crux of that lesson is taking care of your mental health and making sure that you have a support system that has your back.

How has your summer experience impacted you or your view of public interest work or the legal system?

The most satisfying part of working in public interest is seeing the impact your work has on those you are representing. It was amazing to work on drafting a law for a group or producing a report analyzing their legal situation and be met with the same shared enthusiasm when you present what you’ve worked on. Public interest for me presented an opportunity to work with boots-on-the-ground activist groups and provide them support on their journey to obtain actionable results. While that kind of change can be slow to happen, knowing you are a part of that change is a huge reward.

Do you have a favorite anecdote or project from your summer work?

As one of my last assignments for the Earth Law Center I presented to a coalition of animal rights and environmental law organizations on ELCs position regarding a few potential pieces of legislation. It was thrilling to advocate for ELC’s clients—I cannot wait to do similar work in the future.

Would you recommend this placement to others? Why or why not?

100%. Working for the Earth Law Center was the highlight of my summer, and I look forward to volunteering with the group as I move forward during my legal career. I not only gained valuable legal experience, but I also gained knowledge on such a large variety of issues that I could not have anticipated.

What would you say to someone who was considering donating to the NPILF fund?

Thank you! NPILF is the reason that I, and so many of my friends, were able to take placements at nonprofit legal groups this past summer. Public interest work can be difficult to sustain as a career without the generosity of community members willing to support such action. I want to thank all donors and potential future donors for funding the NPILF grant because you are making a direct difference in the lives of students who feel called to public interest work but might otherwise be financially unable to participate.

What do you hope to do with your law degree?

After law school, I hope to work in the nonprofit public interest field. I would like to specifically focus on representing groups engaged in legal battles for the protection of wildlife.

Following her summer with Earth Law Center, Kelly completed an externship with the Animal Welfare Institute's Farm Animal Program in the fall of 2021. This summer she will be working with the Humane Society of the United States.