“Anyone who has been to law school understands how expensive it is,” says Alisha Bowen, co-founder of Legal Aid’s Bowen Scholarship. “When I saw the lack of diversity in our attorney staff, I asked myself, ‘How can we fix this?’”
Bowen and co-founder Luz Lopez Rosas focused on a first and obvious fix – make law school more financially accessible for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in the legal profession. Financial barriers impact every step to a legal career, including the positions attorneys take after earning their degrees. Nationally, according to the ABA Young Lawyers Division Student Loan Survey, nearly a third of new attorneys who intended to work in public service diverted to other career opportunities due to their student debts.
As legal assistants in Legal Aid’s housing unit, Bowen and Lopez Rosas bring lived experience and professional skills to their direct client work and to their internal work on Legal Aid’s BIPOC Advisory Committee. Their observations of the effects of racial disparities on client communities are behind the creation of the Bowen Scholarship.
“Being part of the housing unit has made clear the importance of having attorneys who share the lived experiences of the clients we serve,” Lopez Rosas says. “There’s a different cultural exchange that happens when the advocate has a deeper understanding or shared identity with the clients.”
The disparities in attorney numbers go beyond attorneys and their service to clients. The lack of BIPOC representation among judges, referees, courtroom workers, and those in legislative positions affect the daily workings of the legal system at every level.
The purpose of the Bowen Scholarship is to relieve financial barriers faced by prospective lawyers from traditionally underrepresented communities, thereby increasing their chances of success. The Bowen Scholarship offers $25,000 scholarships, paid directly to the law school, to cover costs for tuition, fees, textbooks, and other school-related expenses. All current Legal Aid non-attorney staff who are from traditionally underrepresented or disadvantaged communities and/or a member of a recognized Indigenous/Native American tribe are eligible.
Bowen and Lopez Rosas created the scholarship as part of their work on the BIPOC Advisory Committee. They researched, developed a plan, and presented it to the management team. Legal Aid adopted the plan and demonstrated commitment by setting aside $100,000 to get it started. Additional organizational support includes free LSAT testing for all MMLA staff applying for law school, and LSAT prep classes available to non-attorney staff.
Legal Aid staff across offices and units voluntarily support the Bowen Scholarship through payroll deductions, collectively contributing over $500 each month. The scholarship needs more support to maximize the effect, and Legal Aid hopes the local legal community will see the benefits of a more diverse bar and join the effort.
The Bowen Scholarship Committee selected three individuals in March of 2022 as the first recipients. The scholarship will support the professional growth of these future Minnesota lawyers.