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Defying her disability, Legal Aid attorney excels as an advocate for vulnerable children
Grace Lazzara, BA 97; photo by Douglas Levere, BA ’89
Think about facing the unthinkable. What would your reaction be? Shock? Anger? Equanimity?
Shannon Filbert knows what her reaction would be. She has lived it. In fact, she has lived it and emerged intact in the ways that matter. When she was 16, a car accident left her paralyzed from the neck down. An accomplished dancer, Filbert found herself dependent on others to manage life’s daily activities. But this live wire of a girl took her mother’s loving advice: “She said to me, ‘You can feel sorry for yourself, or you can go out and do what you want,’” she recalls.
After enduring five months of rehabilitation and graduating with her senior class, Filbert took on the notion of attending college. She chose UB for a concrete reason: As a quadriplegic, it was important for her to stay in her hometown of West Seneca near Buffalo so family and friends could assist her.
Filbert feels she became more mature as a result of her accident. She says she “took college seriously,” adding, “I still had a social life, but I was dedicated to my future.” Her major, legal studies, led to a business law class that piqued her interest. The payoff? Graduation magna cum laude and admittance to UB Law School.
Law appealed to Filbert because she likes “to argue, to be right all the time.” Her time at law school was marked not only by intense studies but also by “a very tight group of classmates.” Taking the domestic violence clinic afforded her a chance to work with Erie County Family Court Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin, JD ’85, who was then chief of the Erie County District Attorney’s Domestic Violence Bureau. “That’s when I found out what I wanted to do,” she says. Filbert also clerked with Erie County Court Judge Sheila DiTullio. Filbert describes both women as “great mentors who taught me a lot.”
Today, Filbert’s full-time position as staff attorney at the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo finds her representing children in abuse and neglect cases. From parents who keep a dangerously filthy home to corporal punishment, sexual abuse and even death, Filbert sees it all. “It’s very tough, but I remind myself that I’m the voice for these kids.” She also gets assigned counsel cases through Erie County, representing people who can’t afford a lawyer. And, lest anyone accuse her of slacking, she’s the town prosecutor in West Seneca, a “honeymoon” job taking on lower-stakes cases like traffic offenses.
Filbert admits her career is stressful and time-consuming. She dismisses any concern, however. “I live for that,” she says. “I don’t like being bored.”
Though Filbert barrels headlong through life, she doesn’t shrink from revealing the difficulties she faces each day. She owns her own home but needs assistance with everything, a cold fact of existence that frustrates a woman who clearly values freedom and independence.
“Everything is a challenge,” Filbert says. Maintaining her emotional health is a combination of her own attitudes and her support system of friends and family. “If it weren’t for them,” she says, “I don’t know if I could do this.”
Filbert’s next big goal—one her persistence and success to date seem to ensure—is running for a judgeship. She absolutely refuses to let her disability rule her life: “Your life doesn’t end. I’m the same person I was.”
What you don’t know about her
“I passed the bar on the first try.”
“I like to gamble and enjoy fine dining with friends.”
“Dessert. At my [some day] wedding we are eating the cake first.”
“Taking my nephew out for ice cream.” Favorite choreographer Mia Michaels, best known from the TV series “So You Think You Can Dance,” from whom Filbert took a couple of classes as a teen while at a dance convention
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