A U.S. Army veteran has plans to spend her “second act” helping local residents in Yell County gain access to legal representation.
“The reason I went to law school is I want to do legal aid in my community,” said Cynthia Aikman, 55, of Bluffton. “We don’t have any legal aid services in Yell County. The closest one is an hour away. It is a major problem for this rural county, so that’s my goal.”
Aikman will graduate from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law on Dec. 15. Although she already has an MBA, Aikman was inspired to attend law school after seeing so many changes that hurt her local community.
“Our school district consolidated after 50 years. We thought we were protected because we were so isolated. Kids are on the school bus up to two hours each way,” Aikman said. “There is also the whole cell tower issue. I testified in front of our state senators about how not having cell phone coverage affects our lives, and we need it more than anyone. We are away from our houses doing possibly dangerous jobs in agriculture, and we can’t dial 911. Many of our rural post offices were closed. All of this stuff was happening, and I decided I needed to go to law school to get on the other side of things. I am just trying to right some of these rural wrongs. I’ve learned a lot. I might even run for the legislature one day.”
While starting law school with the best of intentions in 2013, Aikman was forced to leave after a year due to health problems.
“I have Lupus, and stress is a trigger,” she said. “Everyone in my family was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it. The second time, I decided I am going to do it for fun, and I won’t be stressed out. The Disability Resource Center had lots of ideas. I wasn’t trying to be the top of the class. I was just in it to learn it.”
Living nearly two hours away, Aikman drove in weekly and stayed with her daughter on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights so she could attend night classes at Bowen. While in law school, she was a member of the Christian Legal Society, where she ran a multi-year Bible study, as well as the Black Law Students Association and Outlaw, a student organization dedicated to promoting diversity, raising awareness of legal issues affecting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) people, and maintaining an open atmosphere of respect, equality, and justice for all.
“Cindy is loved by her fellow students and respected by her professors,” said Jessie Burchfield, Bowen’s associate dean for information and technology services. “In the fall semester of 2018, she volunteered over 200 hours at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services. Her passion is to provide pro bono services to those who need legal help and can’t afford it.”
Aikman said she loved working pro-bono cases for people in need but found the experience eye opening.
“It’s crazy what the full-time lawyers take care of. The lawyer I worked for probably had 80 cases at any one time,” she said. “There are so many cases coming in, and there is such a need for it. You knock out case after case after case. Anyone who volunteers there wants to work in legal aid because you see such a need for it.”
Aikman credits Sarah Jenkins, Charles C. Baum Distinguished Professor of Law, and Burchfield, who have both served as advisors to the Christian Legal Society, for serving as her mentors at Bowen.
“They made themselves available to all the students and especially everyone who was in the club,” she said. “They would take us to lunch if any of the students had any problems. When students have personal problems, they show up, and they are interested. They are accessible, and they are sincere.”
In January, Aikman will begin a two-month course to help her study for the bar exam, which she will take later in the semester. As she reflects on her time at Bowen, she is sad to see that part of her life come to an end, but excited to start the next chapter in her career.
“I just loved every minute at Bowen,” Aikman said. “I loved all my classes and all my professors. I would recommend it to anyone. You are never too old to change careers, and law is a good one.”