man standing outside the Legal Aid window.

Timely help for the neediest clients

After his 1L summer working at Neighborhood Legal Assistance Program in South Carolina, Shawn Boehringer ’93 took a circuitous route home to Pennsylvania. “It was the first time I had driven through the heart of impoverished Appalachia,” he says, “and I had the idea that this would be the area to start my legal career. The need seemed to be so great.”

That impulse led the young lawyer to a three-and-a-half-year stint with the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky, where he represented clients in one of the poorest regions of the country. In a landscape ravaged by strip mining and suffering from the environmental impacts of that industry, his work included representing miners making claims for black lung compensation. 

His other cases included the all too frequent issues for civil legal service providers anywhere: substandard housing, foreclosures and evictions; SSI claims; employment disputes; and family issues including domestic violence.  

He committed to advocating for low-income and vulnerable clients, and he’s never looked back. As a staff attorney, supervising attorney, director of advocacy, and chief counsel, Boehringer has built his career with legal services programs in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Baltimore before taking on his current role as executive director of Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania (LASP) in 2018. The busy nonprofit, with nine offices, serves clients in four suburban counties outside of Philadelphia. 

“At its core, LASP is a human rights law firm, providing voices to those who are often voiceless in those forums where civil disputes are decided,” Boehringer says. “We try to ensure that people’s fundamental needs are met, including protection from abuse, stabilization of families, and maintenance of income and affordable and livable housing. And we advocate for fairness, equity and due process for those who access our services.” 

With more than 80 staff members, the LASP’s assistance ranges from providing advice—letting callers know their rights, making referrals, pointing them in the right direction—to brief services like drafting a letter to a landlord, and all the way up to extended representation in a court case. Recently, they’ve seen a major focus on disaster relief cases, as Pennsylvanians continue to claw their way back from the widespread destruction of Hurricane Ida.  

Another major effort is in community outreach and education, particularly on the state’s Clean Slate Law. That law makes it possible to seal the records of long-past minor criminal offenses, which, Boehringer says, can make it possible for people to access better housing, education or employment, or to reach a more favorable outcome in family law cases. “You almost get a life sentence with landlords and employers being able to research these criminal records, and excluding people from an apartment or a job on that basis,” he says. LASP helped one older client expunge a decades-old shoplifting conviction, for example, so he could be admitted to a nursing home. LASP attorneys will also work on behalf of incarcerated persons seeking pardons; “we go beyond the statutory requirements and show that that individual has rehabilitated himself and served his punishment, and is now a contributing member of society with a good job.” 

The needs never stop. “The work we do is really human rights law,” Boehringer says. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has an article providing protections for people who are unemployed, who are disabled, or who have lost employment for reasons beyond their control. There’s discussion of a human right to decent, affordable housing. And protection from violence—of course that’s a human rights issue, and it demands access to an advocate who can ensure the law is properly applied.”