Closing Argument

Issue: Winter 2022

An Advocate for Including More Seats at the Table

Aida Neimarlija never saw herself as a lawyer. While earning undergraduate degrees in political sciences and economics at the University of Utah, she thought she would go into human rights work — a topic close to home for the refugee who fled Bosnia with her family when she was 13 and moved to Utah two years later. (Her mother had remembered briefly learning about Utah in school and, half-jokingly, said swimming in the Great Salt Lake would be like going to swim in their home country’s Adriatic Sea.)

A remark made to Neimarlija during an internship at the Utah Attorney General’s Office changed her trajectory. She had completed a legal project and the chief of one of the divisions was impressed.

“He said ‘Have you thought about going to law school?’ That type of encouragement made a huge difference to me. By then, I had not met any lawyers. I was a refugee. I learned English when I was a teenager. It just never hit me that I could be a lawyer,” Neimarlija recalled.

She graduated from the College of Law in 2008. Like that mentor, Neimarlija has since seized every opportunity to help a more diverse pool of Utahns recognize themselves as potential lawyers and judges. After a decade of intense litigation practice, Neimarlija took a sabbatical and focused full-time on diversity and inclusion issues as executive director of the Utah Center for Legal Inclusion. She recently stepped down from the post to become assistant general counsel for the Larry H. Miller Dealerships but remains an advisor on the executive committee.

The center aims to make Utah’s legal profession more reflective of the state’s changing demographics by “advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in Utah’s legal profession,” according to its website.

“The way I see it, UCLI’s mission is about giving everyone a seat the table … and giving them an opportunity to shape the justice system,” she said. “Without people participating in the justice system, seeing themselves on the court, seeing somebody that looks like them as a judge, as a law firm leader, as a U.S. Attorney, if they don’t see that, the trust and confidence in the justice system is not going to be as high.”

Neimarlija considered going out of state for law school but chose the U. because she received a large scholar-ship and wanted to benefit from the U’s small class sizes.

“Everything I had heard about the law school was true: It was very high quality. I loved the classes. I heard about close relationships between students and the faculty,” she said.

What stands out most from the law school were the excellent faculty and her practical experiences, including her trial advocacy class and internship opportunities. During her third year at school, Neimarlija joined the prosecution team at the Special Department for War Crimes of the Prosecutor’s Office in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, bolstered by her classes on criminal law and criminal procedure.

“The school has always done such a great job with the on-campus interviewing process and connecting students with local companies and organizations for internships and jobs,” she said. Such opportunities undoubtedly “enhanced my law firm career.”

While she intended to go into human rights or international law, her first-year summer associate experience at Snow, Christensen & Martineau sparked her interest in the courtroom. She joined Howrey LLP after law school to work on securities and antitrust cases, along with general business litigation. “I absolutely loved representing clients. I loved being in the courtroom and developing strategy on cases,” she said.

She became a partner at Burbidge Mitch-ell and Gross and then Gross & Rooney, where she had “a lot of opportunities to go to court, to take depositions, to do very meaningful work, and most importantly, to try cases. I caught the trial bug, big time.”

While taking a sabbatical, Neimarlija was approached by (now-retired) Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham about working at the Utah Center for Legal Inclusion. “It was so amazing and fulfilling to think about how we can shape things in our state. The demographics have changed, and they continue to change, but the legal profession has not kept up. One of the big issues we need to work on is the pipeline issue. We need to have a more organized, collaborative approach to bring diverse, traditionally underrepresented kids to law school and then help them succeed during law school and in the practice.” she said.

“It was just a fascinating opportunity to play a major part in putting these pieces of a puzzle together and making a big impact.”