Have you ever had a zippy little email exchange with someone through work and thought, “Now, that’s someone I’d like to meet for a cocktail”? That’s what I’ve thought every time I’ve emailed Shelmun Dashan over the last few years. Shelmun is a legal aid attorney at LAF in Chicago, where she represents clients in the Consumer Protection Practice Group, and she attended a NITA trial skills program through the tuition support of our friends at the International Society of Barristers [ISOB]. When I asked her about what it meant to her and LAF to receive training and support, she remarked, “Investing in [legal aid/public service lawyers] gives you incredible bang for your buck, even though you may never understand how much it means to our clients. The stakes are very high for our clients, so ISOB’s support of legal aid attorneys is a service and credit to the legal system and low-income clients as a whole.” That’s a sentiment that resonates with us, so inviting Shelmun to play “Asked and Answered” was a given. As you’ll see, whether she’s talking about the importance of equal access to justice or counting down the days until she’s snapped into her ski boots in Colorado, Shelmun is smart, cool, lively, and engaging. Next time you’re in Seattle, Shelmun, the drinks are on me.
What do you do for LAF?
I’m a legal aid attorney; what don’t I do? 😁 I am a staff attorney in the Consumer Protection Practice Group at LAF. I have full responsibility for―at any given time―twenty-five to forty-ish clients’ consumer finance problems. Examples of the kinds of cases I’m currently working on include getting a client’s student loans discharged on the basis of his disability to stop the government from garnishing his disability benefits, and a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy in which I filed an adversary proceeding to enforce a loan modification agreement that my client secured in 2016 but the lender “never received” her final documents, didn’t modify her mortgage, and then started foreclosure proceedings against her. I have a fun Fair Debt Collection Practices Act case against a debt collection firm that sued my client last year for a water debt his mother―who died penniless in 2003―owed on a house my client never owned. I have a client who is a senior citizen whose identity was stolen to get credit to buy a car. That meant her name went on the title. The identity thief then racked up thousands of dollars in parking tickets, which the City is now trying to extract from my client. Ironically, this client actually never learned to drive and has never had a driver’s license. These are but a few florae in the garden of consumer protection delights.
You’ve worked in legal aid ever since law school at Harvard. What attracted you to a public service career?
There were push and pull factors. I have always been a justice- and fairness-oriented person. I can’t stand bullies and people who abuse power. My parents also very much instilled in me a sense of service and responsibility to use your abilities and resources to help other people and make your corner of the world less terrible. There’s also the fact that black and brown people bear the brunt of poor consumer protection laws and enforcement; that infuriates me. I find almost everything interesting, so I am sure I could have been happy and had a great career doing something far more “prestigious” or lucrative. But the idea of being an agent―bound by professional rules to fire in whichever direction my clients point me―was very sobering for me. I realized I really wanted a job where what I personally care about is pretty closely aligned with what I am actually spending most of my time and energy and creativity working on. I have been very fortunate that I have been able to do so. I was also incensed after the financial crisis [that started in 2008]―both by the cause of the crash and by the government’s failure to make consumers whole or punish those who were responsible for tanking the global economy. I didn’t really have much of an appetite for representing the institutions who were involved in that.
How did you first hear about the trial skills trainings at NITA?
I am not sure except that many LAF attorneys have attended NITA trainings, so periodically people send around an email if there is an upcoming NITA program for which there are scholarships. It is also possible that my supervisor asked me to apply.
It’s been a couple of years since you attended the NITA program. What do you do differently now, as a result of what you learned, that impacts your clients in a good way?
One of my biggest takeaways from NITA was really thinking hard about strategy with framing, facts, evidence, and civil procedure. I think really hard about good facts and bad facts now. I do a lot more thinking about what the other side’s best arguments are and how I will defang them with other facts or with framing and picking my case theme. I think hard about crafting a cohesive narrative that the judge/jurors will follow and be moved by rather than letting the facts or chronology drag me around in my prep. I also enjoy cross-examination a lot more than I did before NITA.
What work accomplishment are you most proud of?
This is a hard one. I think I feel less proud of work accomplishments and more joy and relief for my clients and what the outcome means for them. There’s also a lot of satisfaction that justice was done or that I got to put a bad actor in their place. Last year, I won $30,000 for a subsidized tenant, stopped her from being evicted and losing her housing voucher, and $40,000 in attorney’s fees at summary judgment. I don’t know that I’m most proud of that, but it’s probably my most splashy accomplishment.
I must say, I was pretty pleased with myself in my first year of practice when I was finally able to write out the preamble on a court order without looking it up: “This matter coming before the court on Plaintiff’s motion to dismiss, both parties being represented by counsel . . . .” I felt like a real lawyer who didn’t have to Google “court order” to complete basic tasks.
You lived in Nigeria for twelve years. When you think back to that time in your life, what first pops into your head?
Fresh tropical fruit, invariably well-seasoned food, torrential tropical rains and how they sound on metal roofs, and Nigerians―who are the most intentionally and unintentionally hilarious people on earth (we can just take judicial notice of this).
You describe yourself as a “skiing fanatic.” Tell us about that.
Ha! I learned how to ski not far from NITA HQ in Colorado (at Eldora!) during winter break my 1L year and loved it. I have returned to Colorado every winter and spring since then (this will be my eighth year). I am now a full-blown skiing addict and evangelist, to the great bewilderment of my family and friends. For a law school graduation gift, my godmother offered to pay for a trip anywhere, so I went and skied Patagonia (Argentina side).
I never feel better than when I ski off a lift and start a run with the incredible mountain view in front of me, the warmth of the sun on the few exposed square centimeters of my face, and great snow underfoot. Heaven.
What are you reading for pleasure right now?
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. I have meant to read it for years and years and finally started recently. I am also technically reading Matthew Desmond’s incredible book, Evicted. But I don’t know if I’d describe that as pleasure reading. As a former eviction defense attorney, the book is too real. I have given myself permission to read it in manageable doses.
What were you obsessed with as a kid?
Ha! Reading and playing soccer. I read so much fantasy. I would hide in trees or under the couch or behind a curtain, hoping that being out of sight would stop people from bothering me so I could read. My mom would always tell me I was going to ruin my eyes from reading for hours by candlelight or kerosene lamp during frequent electricity outages. My all-time favorite book is Ender’s Game (which is sci-fi, I know; stand down, nerds).
If someone who’s never been to Chicago were to ask for your advice on what to see and do for a weekend trip, what would you tell them?
Hamilton. I don’t care how much the tickets are―it is worth it. Walk around Millennium Park and see the Bean and the gardens, and then go walk or bike the Lake Shore Drive trail. Go to a comedy show. Make a pilgrimage to Pequod’s Pizza (there will probably be a line). Brunch at Wishbone in West Loop. Everything they make is delicious. Go to a live music venue like Buddy Guy’s or the Green Mill. You can skip Navy Pier. You can skip the Sears Tower (it is now called the Willis Tower by nobody who lives here). There are many great museums, if that’s more your speed. There’s a free zoo in Lincoln Park―not far from downtown. If you like seeing “city-ness” or shopping, you can walk down the Magnificent Mile. In warmer months, the architecture boat tour gets rave reviews. It really depends on what you like, but whatever it is, Chicago has it. I will also note, we have very good public transportation. And everyone should read Devil in the White City, which juxtaposes the planning and execution of Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 with the story a serial killer who was active in Chicago at the same time. It is a riveting and informative piece of non-fiction.
If you could pick up a new skill in an instant, what would it be?
Musical instrument (Voice? Cello? Drum set? Guitar?) or the ability to pick up new languages quickly. Maybe a martial art. Although, as I think about it now, if I could ski race I’m sure I wouldn’t have any competition if I tried to represent Team Nigeria at the next Winter Olympics.
Lightning-round questions. Coffee or tea?
I love both. I drink them both daily with sweetened condensed milk. My arteries are thrilled, I’m sure.
Early bird or night owl?
The nightest of owls.
Winter or summer?
I’ll give you one guess.
Introvert or extrovert?
It surprises many people that I’m an introvert.
City or country?
And finally, what is your motto?
“The world will not collapse.” It’s actually my dad’s motto, but it is very much part of how I lean into life. It was basically my dad’s way of saying, “[insert problem] is not the end of the world.” Which is literally true of everything. It helps give me perspective and calm so I can focus on what is really important to me rather than being distracted or unduly dismayed by life’s unending stream of annoyances and disappointments.
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