For Melinda Bowen, working as the executive director of the Utah Center for Legal Inclusion (UCLI) is particularly meaningful; Bowen not only helped found the Center in 2017, she considers it “a passion project.” UCLI is a nonprofit dedicated to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in Utah’s legal community. “We want to create a space where everyone in the legal profession can thrive,” she says. “As a woman and an attorney of color, these issues are relevant and front of mind for me. UCLI’s mission is a personal mission as well,” she says.
Bowen has been involved in multicultural student service organizations since she was an undergraduate student at BYU. “Volunteering with these groups helped me to see the good that they do as well as gaps that could be filled. I saw ways that I could bring my unique skills to the table,” she says. After graduating from BYU Law in 2010, Bowen practiced white collar criminal defense and general commercial litigation with Snow Christensen & Martineau in Salt Lake City, before clerking for Judge Tena Campbell of the United States District Court of Utah, and Judge Caroline McHugh of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. She later served as president of the Utah Minority Bar Association (UMBA, 2013–2015) before returning to BYU Law to teach criminal law and criminal procedure.
It was during her time as UMBA president that Bowen and two colleagues––Jessie Nix (past president of UMBA) and fellow BYU Law alum, Kristen Olsen––began conceptualizing and laying the foundation for UCLI. The nonprofit organization was officially launched in 2017.
One of UCLI’s key missions is to support and encourage professional advancement for diverse attorneys in Utah including members of UMBA, LGBT and Allied Lawyers of Utah, the Disability Law Center, Women Lawyers of Utah, and the Young Lawyers Division of the Utah State Bar. “These organizations are run by lawyers who have full time jobs and volunteer their time. It’s a lot of work,” Bowen says. “Our vision was to create a separate entity to help lighten the load for these organizations and help coordinate their efforts in a meaningful way.” Bowen makes it clear that UCLI is not displacing or replacing these groups, rather partnering with them. “I’m continually amazed at the good work that people are doing. We are here to supplement, coordinate, and support. ”
Another UCLI focus is to help make legal education attractive and accessible to all students. “Many students from underrepresented groups, including people of color, don’t necessarily see themselves in certain professions,” Bowen says. “Our hope was to create a vision for students and to eliminate any barriers that might exist for particular groups.” According to the organization’s website:
“UCLI has developed a comprehensive education and mentoring plan that serves diverse students in achieving academic and professional goals in the law, beginning in K–12 schools and continuing through undergraduate institutions and law schools. The committee supports and enhances programs serving students in K–12 schools, universities, and law schools, in an effort to introduce students to legal principles and practice, to connect students with financial and other resources, and to provide meaningful mentoring opportunities.”
Bowen notes that for many attorneys, barriers also exist in legal practice. “We want to help legal employers to create an environment where everyone can thrive,” she says. “UCLI has a certification program for legal employers to learn concrete steps towards building diversity, equity, and inclusion in their workplaces.” She argues that diversity, equity, and inclusion are lifelong pursuits. “This is not something you can think about or go to a training on once and leave it alone. It’s a continual process of learning and growth for everyone involved,” she says.
While much of UCLI’s work is focused on groups, ultimately the organization exists to help individual would-be and practicing attorneys succeed in the profession. “The legal profession is a resource for all Utahns,” Bowen stresses. “The end goal is to create the right conditions so that the justice system and our courts are functioning in the way that allows for access for everyone. We need everyone’s input on how to do that in the best, most effective way. The culture is evolving and changing in good ways, and it can continue to grow from here.”