The average January low temperature in Lincoln, Nebraska is 14 degrees Fahrenheit, but Shirley Peng (’09) would assure you that you quickly get used to the cold. Since graduating from Chapman University Dale E. Fowler School of Law in 2009, the Southern California native has been working as an attorney with Legal Aid of Nebraska.
“I always thought I would work in California – I even took the California bar thinking I would stay – but I graduated into a hard job market and wasn’t going to turn down the chance at my dream job,” she said.
For the past two years, Peng has headed up a new and unique initiative as Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Disaster Relief Project Manager. In 2015, the office received a Legal Services Corporation grant to start the agency’s Disaster Relief Program, one of only two such programs at legal aid organizations in the United States. Through the Disaster Relief Program, Legal Aid of Nebraska offers disaster preparedness resources to the public and members of the bar, including disaster-specific training for attorneys who may be called upon to help victims of state-declared emergencies. Peng and her team have since recruited and trained 135 pro bono attorneys from across the state.
“People usually don’t think about legal services after a disaster, but there are a number of issues that arise, ranging from landlord-tenant issues to ensuring that people receive disability and employment benefits or food stamps,” she said. “Disasters are not a matter of if, but when. It’s great to be a part of a model that helps the most vulnerable people in a more proactive way.”
Peng’s journey to Legal Aid of Nebraska began in her second year of law school at Chapman, when she applied for several out-of-state summer opportunities to broaden her experience. Her applications reached as far as New York and also included Nebraska, where she had relatives. While waiting to hear back about an interview with a New York law firm, she received a call from a nonprofit organization in Nebraska – the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest – that offered her a summer clerkship on the spot. According to Peng, she couldn’t say no.
“I think students sometimes get such tunnel vision on where they want to live or work that they miss out on something that might be a great fit,” she said. “I knew the opportunity would provide valuable job experience that I couldn’t pass up.”
Peng spent that summer working and building a professional and personal network (she even met her future husband through a neighbor) before returning for her final year of law school.
While Peng originally hoped to find public interest employment in Orange County, she quickly discovered after graduation that many organizations had hiring freezes. While visiting family in Nebraska, she reached out to Legal Aid of Nebraska about the possibility of volunteering in the offices during her stay. Soon after, she received a job offer.
“The connections you make as a law student are so valuable,” she said. “They can lead to so many opportunities in the future.”