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Are Individuals with a Criminal Record Fit to Be Lawyers? Increasingly, the Answer Is Yes

By Elizabeth Olson

"Tarra Simmons, a former drug addict who had been incarcerated twice, earned a law degree with honors.

Then she went through a moral character and fitness review to become a licensed lawyer in Washington State, where she lives.

The licensing panel voted to block her from taking the bar licensing exam. While the committee’s rationale is under seal, it likely had something to do with the fact that she had committed felonies and gone bankrupt.

Ms. Simmons, 40, has appealed the ruling successfully. “At first, I was afraid that appealing would mean they were going to shame me in public,” she said. “I did have problems, but I overcame them. This was the gateway to practice, and I had to go through it.”

Whether people like Ms. Simmons should be allowed to practice law is a hot question these days. Acceptance for those with less-than-impeccable pedigrees seems to be rising.

Since the 1930s, states routinely applied character and fitness tests in order to guard against licensing attorneys who might misuse client funds or who have substance abuse problems. The reviews regularly turn up offenses that applicants neglected to mention on their bar applications.

“We don’t want to be draconian and bar people from having another chance in life. But we don’t want licenses to wind up in the hands of people who can do damage,” said Erica Moeser, the recently retired executive director of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which conducts applicant background checks for about half the states. The other states conduct their own investigations.

But the standards are subjective and at times unclear.

Christopher Poulos, 35, did a stint in federal prison for cocaine trafficking. Afterward, he was an intern at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and graduated from the University of Maine School of Law in 2016. Then he took Maine’s bar exam and applied to join the state bar.

“After I took the bar, I got a package that had a letter congratulating me on passing the bar exam,” Mr. Poulos said. “And the same package, there was another letter that said: ‘But we are not ready to have you sworn into the bar.’”"

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