Law school supports entrepreneurial, poverty-relief initiatives

A local law school wants to offer more business and economic resources for minority populations in West Michigan.

Western Michigan University Cooley Law School already has a clinic to help ex-offenders get expungements from their records and assistance with registry and employment issues.

And it offers pro bono legal services at the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Mel Trotter Ministries, Dégagé Ministries, Justice for our Neighbors and the local Veterans Administration.

But the school wants to do more, said Nelson Miller, associate dean at the WMU Cooley Grand Rapids campus.

To that end, WMU Cooley launched a three-part series of workshops patterned after its successful “Leadership in Times of Crisis” workshops focusing on the Ford administration.

Workshop participants will hear from members of the African-American community, the Hispanic/Latino population and women entrepreneurs via panel discussions that will include nonprofits, business leaders and lawyers.

Miller said the idea is to listen to the communities whose legal needs largely go unmet — to help promote the kind of “economic flourishing” that is good for the region.

“We’ve all heard the saying, ‘Don’t feed the poor fish, but rather teach them to fish,’” Miller said. “There’s another step to it.

“For a lot of those who are struggling to find employment or grow their small businesses, the challenge is not necessarily to teach them, but rather to give them access to the fish market. To give them access to the financial and legal services and give them legal status (as a business), which can be really difficult to obtain.”

Miller said WMU Cooley hopes to promote change through the courses in two ways: By educating law students and connecting them with lawyers who are doing entrepreneurial and poverty-related work; and by giving a voice to members of underserved groups and connecting them with the lawyers and business leaders who can help.

“The workshops are an effort to identify solutions,” he said. “As a law school, we graduate service professionals. We have a way of educating lawyers in traditional services, but that is not always effective. As much as 80 percent of civil legal needs go unmet because of cost, culture, location. And it’s usually the lower-income folks whose needs go unmet.

“We want to learn more about that. We want to hear from the nonprofit leaders.”

The first workshop, on the African-American community, was Jan. 11 and featured speakers from LINC-UP, Cascade Engineering, Geers Law, the WMU Center for Ethnic Relations and Grand Rapids Black Chamber of Commerce.

On Jan. 20, Jorge Gonzalez, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Trey Dimsdale, Acton Institute community engagement director, and Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities representatives will lead a discussion on Hispanic/Latino issues.

The final workshop, Feb. 7, will focus on women-owned businesses in the community. Speakers will include Bonnie Nawara, CEO of Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, and several female entrepreneurs who will share their stories and insights on overcoming obstacles to success in starting and developing a business.

Gonzalez said he is looking forward to what will come out of the classes.

“WMU Cooley’s approach, which reaches out to underserved populations, not only will teach people about the systems available to them, it will also assist in advancing and promoting businesses that have experienced barriers in the past,” he said.

Miller said the workshops are meant to be interactive.

“The first hour is devoted to the panel,” he said, “the second hour is the community segment, hearing from those who are in business and trying to get started, and the third hour is a roundtable,” where the community participants will be able to combine their insights to solve problems.

“What are the products we have and services we don’t offer, so we can reach those who currently don’t seem to have access to the services lawyers provide?” Miller said.

WMU Cooley hopes this initiative will take on a life of its own and aims for the workshops to spread to the school’s other campuses — Tampa, Florida, Lansing and Auburn Hills — to make a difference in those communities.

In Grand Rapids, the hope is more legal clinics will spring up, offering assistance to the underserved.

“We’ve had long interest in having a transactional law clinic,” Miller said. “We hope to expand our clinical offerings out of this series of workshops.”

About 15-20 participants registered for the workshops, including several WMU Cooley students, alumni, a few lawyers and other “interested citizens,” Miller said.

He said the school expects to repeat and expand the workshops as word gets out.

For more information on the program, contact Miller at

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