Shayla Purifoy majored in urban studies – a mixture of history, political science and sociology – at Rhodes College. Her senior seminar was on community policing.
“It was so much fun, it was so exciting,” she said about her time spent shadowing police officers on the job. “They were helping people and they really were impacting that area, which was the Madison Heights area.”
With this experience, and the mentorship of Mike Kirby, her professor at Rhodes, a goal was realized.
“I decided that I was going to be a cop and no one could tell me any differently,” she said. “I started gun training, I started doing pushups and sit-ups, I was crawling over the wall at the police academy so I could run on their track to be prepared. And then I changed my mind.”
She’d stopped along the way to the police academy just long enough to take the LSAT, she said, “just in case.” It would turn out that law school had a stronger pull than the police academy and she found herself at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. She took a social welfare and policy course, and entered into the general civil litigation clinic to work on domestic violence cases.
The clinic is held now at the law school, but was held at Memphis Area Legal Services Inc. at that time.
“When the position became available, I was the only person that had experience in domestic violence who was applying for the position, so that’s how I ended up with my job,” she said.
The mission of MALS is to provide civil legal assistance to low-income individuals and Purifoy cites the recent signing of the Violence Against Women Act by President Barack Obama as a boost to the work she does.
“He supports women, he supports ending domestic violence and trying to improve people’s lives,” she said. “He recognizes what a huge issue that is in the United States and how just horrible, down to the core, that can destroy a family.”
These days she is assisting, through the YWCA, immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence.
“Not only am I assisting them with their domestic violence issues through order of protection hearings, but I can now assist them with divorces and other legal issues that come up,” Purifoy said.
These women have difficulty accessing the legal system due to language barriers, specifically with the cost of an interpreter in the courtroom.
“If you don’t have a good interpreter, that can damage your whole case,” she said. “There is a responsibility for us to provide access to everyone so if I come to court and ask the judge to appoint an interpreter, but then no one wants to pay them, that can be an issue.”
Courtroom staff might be inclined to do a double take as Purifoy tends to team up with her twin sister Lia Roemer, an advocate with the YWCA, on such cases.
The native Memphian and Central High School graduate first became interested in the legal profession through mock trial while at Central, and that carried over into her time at Rhodes, a program she continues to work with. She is unapologetically immersed in the subculture of mock trial.
“I feel like at this point that mock trial is like Star Trek in that some people get it and some people don’t, and some people are obsessed and some people aren’t,” she said. “There are people who become obsessed with mock trial and I guess I’m one of those.”
Purifoy is also involved in the fight against child abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking, and she sits on the Shelby County Domestic Violence Council. She is recording secretary for the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association, which addresses the needs of African-American lawyers.
MALS is inundated with cases and, she said, they are desperately in need of attorneys to donate their services and offer a pro bono assistance program.
She can attest that the work is rewarding.
“I just feel good when I wake up in the morning and I don’t have a dreading feeling about going to work that I’m sure some people have,” she said. “I could not imagine waking up and thinking, ‘I can’t do one more hour of this.’ I just enjoy helping people.”