Lawyers who went from prison to law school share their stories at PREP Scholarship launch

Shon Hopwood speaking into a microphone at the PREP Scholarship Fund Launch event
Shon Hopwood

For a few lawyers, the path to law school starts with prison. At the October 19 launch of NYU Law’s PREP Scholarship Fund, Georgetown Law Center associate professor Shon Hopwood and Tarra Simmons, a Skadden Fellow at Seattle’s Public Defender Association—who both served criminal sentences before obtaining their JDs—discussed their own experiences and some of the obstacles facing formerly incarcerated individuals who seek to become attorneys. 

Founded by Joel Rudin ’78, a criminal defense attorney, the PREP Scholarship Fund provides support for NYU Law students who were previously incarcerated or have a parent who was incarcerated. It takes its name from the Prison Reform and Education Project (PREP), an NYU Law student organization that teaches legal research skills to prisoners.

Tarra Simmons speaking into a microphone at the PREP Scholarship Fund Launch event
Tarra Simmons

Even after completion of law school, bar admission can be a significant hurdle for applicants with past criminal convictions. Simmons described how her application to take the bar exam was at first rejected by the Washington State Bar Association’s Character and Fitness Board. Although Simmons had earlier served three years for drug and other offenses, she had been sober for six years, had graduated magna cum laude from Seattle University School of Law, and been awarded a Skadden Fellowship in public interest. Hopwood—an ex-bank robber who decided to become a lawyer after the US Supreme Court granted two petitions for certiorari that he had filed for fellow inmates during his incarceration—argued her successful appeal to the Washington Supreme Court.

Select quotes from the discussion:

Tarra Simmons: “What I am advocating now is that we should have a conditional [character and fitness] approval process before law school, until we abolish the character and fitness altogether.…So when somebody gets out of prison, maybe they got their bachelor’s degree when they were in, and they want to go to law school, maybe they should get a conditional approval before law school. And then [the bar association] can tell you up front, ‘Okay, what we want you to do during your three years of law school is we want you to volunteer a hundred hours or take an anger management course or maintain recovery, maybe random monitoring drug tests while you’re in law school or something, and at the end we will support you in your admission.’”

Shon Hopwood: “It’s not people coming out of prison that need the legal profession, it’s the legal profession that needs us. There are so many lawyers that just haven’t experienced the bottom end of America—whether that’s socioeconomically, racially, criminal history, what have you—that haven’t faced struggle. And we need that perspective in the profession. I’m able to talk to some of my criminal defendant clients in a way, sometimes good and sometimes bad, that other lawyers can’t.”