James and Gilda Shellow had already been married eight years when Jim entered law school in 1958. A year later, Gilda was inspired by Jim and his classmates to study law herself. Soon after graduating, they formed a formidable husband-and-wife legal team that would dominate Milwaukee’s criminal defense and civil rights arenas until Gilda’s passing in 2005.
In the mid 1960’s, Jim was already established as a leading criminal defense attorney at a time when the rights of accused were being expanded, and efforts to achieve racial equality were being forcefully pursued by the inner city community. Jim and Gilda both understood that widespread discriminatory practices in housing, employment and in education had an enormous impact on poverty in the Milwaukee area. The Shellows gave generously of their legal talents at a time when there were no laws banning discrimination in housing, employment, or other areas.
As the civil rights movement surged ahead in Milwaukee, there were no effective legal service programs as they exist today. One small legal aid program did its best to meet the need, but it did not have the resources to represent the large numbers of demonstrators and marchers who were often attacked by unruly mobs and ordered to halt their peaceful marches. To help meet this urgent need for legal services, the Shellows played a lead role in organizing a group of young attorneys who were attracted by their energy and commitment to serve these poverty-stricken demonstrators. Often when mass arrests occurred, these attorneys would be called out in the middle of the night to help represent scores of demonstrators who were still being processed at the police station.
Jim and Gilda soon understood that as professionally rewarding as this type of service was, it could not be sustained and expanded on a pro-bono basis. In the late 1960’s, they began working with inner city leaders to secure federal poverty funds to establish a legal service program to serve Milwaukee’s poverty population on a full-time basis. Those efforts resulted in the creation of Freedom Through Equality, which soon became an effective and respected advocate for the poverty community. Jim served on the Board of Directors of FTE and its successor, Legal Action of Wisconsin, for the next decade. When Jim left the Board, he was replaced by Gilda, who continued as a board member and president for many more years.