David Sowemimo always dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
He dreamed about it as a young boy in Nigeria. He dreamed about it when he came to the University of Manitoba as an international student when he was 17. He dreamed about it when he ultimately majored in labour studies for his undergrad degree, and he still dreamed about when he moved to Calgary to work in the insurance industry.
It was in Alberta where he met lawyers who encouraged him to follow his passion — to, at the very least, write the LSAT, which he passed.
He still remembers the day he was accepted into law school at his alma mater, U of M, and sharing the news with his mom, who lives in Nigeria.
"It was such a big moment," he says. "That day will stick in my mind for a really long time. Because I really didn’t see it happening. A lot of people told me wasn’t going to happen."
Working today as an injury lawyer in Edmonton, Sowemimo, 35, realized his dream. And now, he wants to help other Black students realize theirs.
The new David Sowemimo Law Entrance Scholarship is a $6,000 scholarship that will be awarded annually to a Black undergraduate student enrolled full time in the juris doctor degree program in the Faculty of Law at the U of M. It’s the first scholarship of its kind at the university.
Sowemimo always wanted to create a scholarship to encourage Black students to pursue a law career, as soon as he became established as a lawyer. But 2020 felt like precisely the right time to get the ball rolling in many ways, Sowemimo says. The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the Black Lives Matter protests it sparked the world over put a renewed focus on Black rights.
"I thought it was the best time to put it together to raise some awareness on the lack of diversity in the legal profession," he says.
Sowemimo knows first-hand the barriers faced by many prospective Black law students. "The first would be financial. And there is this mystery surrounding the legal profession, and surrounding lawyers — more so for people of colour and folks from underrepresented communities. You just don’t see enough people of colour that are lawyers or judges. It seemed it was so far away for me, until I just put together the confidence, the determination to get it done."
It’s hard to see yourself in a space if you don’t see other people who look like you, speak like you, or share some of the same experiences as you, which is why more representation in law school and throughout the legal profession is critical.
After all, as he points out, practising law is about working with people. "You’re dealing with people with different stories, different backgrounds, different exposure to the legal system," he says.
And that context matters. "So, you know, the police pull up, pull you over — there’s an anxiety that you feel right away as a person of colour, as a Black man," he says by way of example. "Those are experiences that I think the folks in the legal profession need to have an understanding of as they go through representing people, helping people in legal profession. It’s really important to have folks that understand those experiences, those lived experiences, in the legal profession — as judges as well — just so they understand where people are coming from, where defendants are coming from."
He adds that courthouses can be intimidating places, especially for recent immigrants for whom there may be language barriers. "Seeing someone that looks like you who approaches you, explains the process and demystifies the grandiosity of the courthouse — that really helps. That goes a long way."
Sowemimo was one of just two Black law students when he graduated from U of M with his juris doctor degree in 2015.
"I just kept my head down throughout law school, and I just kept working… I tried very hard to avoid the noise that comes with law school. Person of colour or not person of colour, you have a lot of anxiety associated with law school, with going to court and all that stuff. But then being a person of colour, there’s added anxiety — anxiety to perform and to succeed, and to make sure you don’t let everybody down."
Going forward, Sowemimo says changes in the articling process would go a long way in changing the culture. (Law students must article with a law firm for a year.)
"There is a strong element of subjectivity to selecting the successful candidates. I’ve heard of students that had to change their names because they weren’t white enough, because they were not getting callbacks. I’ve heard of students that have had a lot of really bad experiences through that process," he says. "An option is to have an anonymous selection process where you have just the phone numbers of the candidates on their resumés, and their transcripts.
"Sometimes you have to go for dinners. You have to go for cocktails and events with firms before they select you and, in most cases, the conversation revolves around your travel. The partners travel in Costa Rica. The recent immigrant from the low-income community — it’s just not the kind of conversation we can have. In many cases, you feel lost in that process, because you don’t really fit into what the firms are looking for."
When Sowemimo’s eponymous scholarship was announced, many people reached out to him on social media, inspired by the story. "People have sent me messages saying that they’ve always wanted to go to law school, but they thought they couldn’t do it. And now they’re going to register for the LSAT."
Such a scholarship would have made a big difference for him if it had existed when he was a first-year law student, and not just financially. "It would tell me that somebody did it; I can do it."
He’s thrilled to be that person for future students.
"I just want to encourage anyone that wants to do it to go forward and do it, and don’t let anyone hold you back," he says. "Usually, people try to transfer their own insecurities to you when you tell them you want to do something like that. So if that’s the passion that someone has, just go for it."