The letter Christopher Poulos received in September 2016 from the Maine Board of Bar Examiners should have been cause for celebration.
It brought word that Poulos had passed the all-important attorney licensing exam on the first crack. But that good news was eclipsed by an ominous message: The new graduate wouldn’t be sworn in with his classmates from the University of Maine School of Law.
The unwelcome delay wasn’t wholly unexpected. Poulos anticipated that he would have to answer a few questions from the board to satisfy Maine’s character and fitness review due to a felony drug-trafficking conviction and nearly three years spent in federal prison. But Poulos was confident that his 10 years of sobriety, his law school track record and his various legal pursuits—including a stint as an intern in the White House Office of National Drug Control and Policy—would clear his path to admission.
What Poulos didn’t anticipate is that, months later, he would become the subject of an adversarial, two-day board hearing in which a state prosecutor would use his past to paint him as a danger to the public and the legal profession, and would attempt to link him to a murderous motorcycle gang of which he had never been a member.
Poulos is among the growing number of lawyers with rap sheets who are speaking openly about their unconventional paths to the profession and the myriad hurdles they faced while navigating the attorney licensing process. They say they want to inspire others with criminal histories to practice law. Some are also advocating for reforms to the character and fitness process to make it more transparent and, they say, more fair.
“I’ve been through quite a few stressful experiences, and this was the only one in my life where I had severe panic attacks,” Poulos said more than two years after his hearing. “The assistant attorney general … made me feel worse than I ever felt as a criminal defendant in court. He said my entire 10 years was an act in order to get a law license, so I could be some kind of Dr. Evil lawyer.”
At the end of the hearing, the board voted 5 to 1 to admit Poulos. Today he’s the executive director of the Washington Statewide Reentry Council, which seeks to help former inmates reintegrate into society. But his character and fitness ordeal came at a price—literally. The attorney Poulos hired to represent him before the board cost the equivalent of a year of law school, he said.
(The Maine board declined to comment on Poulos’ case, but its written decision chastised both sides, describing the hearing and pretrial conferences as “unnecessarily contentious.”)
At the center of the movement to reconsider moral character review is Shon Hopwood, an erstwhile former bank robber and jailhouse lawyer who now teaches criminal law to the next generation of attorneys at Georgetown University Law Center, where he is a tenure-track professor. Hopwood hasn’t shied away from the spotlight—his remarkable journey from federal prison to the legal academy was featured on “60 Minutes” in October. And he has become a guide for others seeking to make the transition from convict to counsel.
“At any one time, I’m mentoring people with felony convictions who are thinking about going to law school, in law school or have recently graduated from law school,” Hopwood said. “In the past 12 months, five of those people have gotten their licenses in five different jurisdictions. Now it was a fight for each and every one of them, but they all prevailed, which I don’t think would have happened just a few years ago.”
Character and fitness rules are set by each jurisdiction, but they are intended to protect the public from unscrupulous lawyers or attorneys who will put their clients at risk.
“Looking at an applicant’s character is an important part of building and maintaining confidence in the legal system and our system of legal process,” said Jean McElroy, the chief regulatory counsel of the Washington State Bar Association. “We are a self-regulating profession. Therefore, it’s a requirement that we take very seriously our obligation to protect the public.”
In most states, a felony conviction creates the presumption that a bar applicant lacks the moral fitness to join the profession. The burden falls on those applicants to establish that they have been rehabilitated.
The problem, according to Hopwood and others, is that states don’t define rehabilitation. Moreover, many of the lawyers serving on review panels don’t have experience with criminal law or training on substance abuse, mental health, or knowledge of recidivism research. With little transparency around the process, decisions often appear arbitrary, they say.
“You’ve got to have some certainty, because no one with a felony conviction who’s thinking about going to law school knows what their chances are,” Hopwood said. “The bar can’t tell them. Admissions officers at law schools can’t tell them. And the reason nobody knows is because most bar associations don’t publish any opinions on these issues. They’re all confidential proceedings behind closed doors.”
Hopwood has proposed a guideline under which convicted felons who have remained out of trouble for five years are admitted, barring any unusual circumstances. Recidivism and relapse rates are low after five years, according to research.
Students at Georgetown, Yale Law School and New York University School of Law have also taken up the cause and are lobbying for the American Bar Association for a rule change to that effect.
In April, Tarra Simmons spent an afternoon at Stanford Law School in a closed-door roundtable session with 25 formerly incarcerated lawyers, prospective law students with criminal backgrounds, officials from the State Bar of California and the American Bar Association, law school admission deans and criminology researchers.
Stanford’s Criminal Justice Center convened the group to brainstorm ways to improve California’s moral character review process—an area the center has been researching for the past year.
For Simmons, the discussion was personal. The former registered nurse served 20 months in prison for a drug offense and was released in 2013. Simmons went on to graduate magna cum laude from Seattle University School of Law in 2017. Despite securing a prestigious two-year Skadden fellowship, amassing 100 letters of recommendation, and maintaining more than five years of sobriety, the Washington State Bar Association’s Character and Fitness board denied her application to take the bar exam following a hearing, partially on the grounds that her sobriety was too recent. Simmons was stunned.
“Everybody I had spoken to said, ‘You’ll be fine,’” Simmons said. “On the morning of my hearing, I did a public Facebook post saying, ‘Today will be a good day. It’s a day about redemption.’ I had every faith that I’d make it through based on the amount of rehabilitation I had done.”
Simmons appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, waiving her confidentially in the matter. That enabled the state’s high court to issue its first published opinion on attorney character and fitness in 30 years—a move she hoped would help others in similar situations navigate the process.
The court in November ruled unanimously in her favor immediately after her hearing. Though she prevailed, Simmons said the process took an emotional toll.
“I don’t think people understand how traumatizing it is to have progressed so far, then basically be reconvicted,” she said.
McElroy, at the state bar, said Washington’s moral character review process is fully laid out in published rules and that it worked as intended in Simmons’ case. The court occasionally disagrees with the board’s recommendations, but that goes in both directions, she said.
“We are specifically looking at conduct. We‘re not attempting to make a determination based on some amorphous idea of good moral character and what that might mean or fitness and what that might mean,” McElroy said. “We’re pretty specific about what we look at.”
Simmons is now a member of a private, year-old Facebook group of about 100 other formerly incarcerated lawyers who support each other and discuss policy reforms surrounding licensure.
Momentum is building around a new approach to the character and fitness review of attorneys with criminal histories, said Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Stanford center.
With more formerly incarcerated individuals going to college, the number who are interested in advanced degrees is on the rise. And more people with criminal records are running into professional licensure barriers, Mukamal said. A recent survey by Stanford of 100 formerly incarcerated people who are college graduates or who identify themselves as criminal justice leaders found that many wanted to go to law school, but they cited the moral character requirement as the primary reason they were not applying.
Participants in the April roundtable at Stanford largely agreed that moral character decision-making could be improved. They also acknowledged that these reviews are complicated, Mukamal said. There was also consensus that a bright-line rule of what is and is not acceptable is unworkable, she added. Stanford plans to release a white paper on the roundtable discussion.
“There was an interesting conversation about, ‘Maybe we should put more of our resources into policing bad lawyers than making that gate on the front end so narrow,’” Mukamal said. “It’s really hard to get disbarred in California. Should there be more parity between how we look at disbarment and admission?”
From the suggestions generated at the roundtable, Simmons said she was particularly drawn to required training on implicit bias, and relapse and recidivism research for lawyers sitting on character and fitness panels. She also liked the idea of licensing bodies providing prospective law students with conditional approval before enrollment, which could eliminate some uncertainty.
“They invest $150,000 in tuition money, work their tail off for three years,” Simmons said. “Then it’s a gamble. You don’t know if in the end if you’ll be able to become a licensed lawyer.”
New York already allows aspiring attorneys to get a so-called “advanced ruling” on the impact of a felony or misdemeanor conviction.
Any forthcoming reforms to the moral character review process won’t come in time for Ben Aldana, who graduated from Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School on April 27.
Aldana plans to take the July bar exam, but first he’ll need the green light from the Utah State Bar’s Character and Fitness Committee. He expects them to have questions about the drug crimes that sent him to federal prison for six years. Aldana was released in 2010, then completed a drug rehab program, found a job, obtained his undergraduate degree and finished law school. Aldana spent a summer working at the Bronx Defenders in New York City, and has a job lined up at the Public Defender Office of Utah County. That’s predicated on being able to sit for—and pass—the bar exam.
“I’ll present the story of my life over the past eight years, and everything I’ve done since I got out of prison to move on with my life, help people and not be the person I used to be,” he said. “I basically need to present to them a different person than they’re going to see on paper. Me on paper is problematic for them.”
Aldana researched as much as he could before choosing a law school. He called law school admissions offices and bar associations in the states where he was applying to try and get a sense of his chances of passing the character and fitness review. But he was told time and again that attorney admission decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and there were no guarantees.
He opted to roll the dice, hoping that a law degree would allow him to make a difference in the lives of others.
“The only thing I can do now is operate under the assumption that they will say yes,” Aldana said. “If they say no, then I’ll deal with it. That’s all I can do.”