Woman Graduates Law School to Learn She Couldn’t Take Bar Exam

'I'm just going to go to law school and figure out how to change this thing that keeps us all from having a second chance'
Andrew Thomas September 6, 2018

If you make a mistake in life, you always hope for a second chance to start over. This woman got her second chance, but she would have to fight for it.

Tarra Simmons of Bremerton, Washington, was 33 years old and battling drug addiction. She sold small amounts of drugs, and stole to support her habit.

The police eventually raided her home and arrested her. She was convicted of five drug felonies, and sentenced to 30 months in prison in September 2011.

As a result of Simmons’ conviction, she was confronted with a lot of civil legal issues.

She had been a registered nurse, and was facing problems concerning her license. She also had a divorce she needed legal assistance with. Furthermore, her house was foreclosed on.

All of these legal issues gave Simmons a nascent interest in the law.

(Courtesy of Tarra Simmons)

When she was released in May 2013, she struggled to find a job because of her convictions. She also couldn’t find a place to rent.

“It was hard to have the stigma, and I was around other people in recovery and in my community who were facing the same issue. I said I’m just going to go to law school and figure out how to change this thing that keeps us all from having a second chance,” Simmons explained to Humanity.

Simmons felt lucky because she was able to get help with her legal issues, and she wanted to help others that didn’t have that same kind of assistance.

She saw the systemic problems in the criminal justice system, and was determined to do something about them.

It was then that she picked up a book called “The Lawman” by Shon Hopwood, a former bank robber turned law professor, who would become a mentor and more.

Reading Hopwood’s book inspired Simmons.

That’s when Simmons started at Seattle University School of Law in August 2014.

Simmons with Hopwood (R) and her attorney. (Courtesy of Tarra Simmons).

“At first it was really hard. I hadn’t been in school for 15 years, and I had a lot of self doubt,” Simmons explained.

She was also hesitant to share her experience of prison with her classmates because she was afraid they would judge her.

Simmons eventually told her professors, and they encouraged and supported her.

She began to become interested in advocacy for criminal justice reform and second chances. She began to find her own strengths, and started to share her story more.

“It turned out to be a phenomenal experience,” Simmons recounted.

She graduated in May 2017, and earned the Dean’s Medal. Furthermore, she graduated Magna Cum Laude.

She also received the first Skadden Fellowship ever in her school’s history.

However, April 14, 2017, a month before graduation, Simmons discovered she wouldn’t be able to take the bar exam to become a lawyer because of her convictions. The feeling still haunts her today.

“It was crushing. It was crushing to be told no, I’m not good enough yet,” Simmons remembered.

Those were the kind of rebukes she had received from her parents growing up, and they stuck with her.

However, a multitude of people from her scholastic and legal network reached out and told her they were determined to help her.

(Courtesy of Tarra Simmons)

Simmons appealed the decision all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court, and the ACLU wrote an amicus brief to the court. An amicus brief is a petition filed by someone on behalf of the petitioner who is not a party to the case.

Forty-eight organizations signed the brief as well as 54 attorneys and law professors.

Simmons was worried the court wouldn’t hear her argument because it had been 35 year since it had accepted an amicus brief concerning fitness to be an attorney.

Ultimately, the court agreed to hear her case. Hopwood argued in front of the court on Simmons’ behalf.

“It was adversarial. It was difficult. It was re-traumatizing at times,” Simmons explained.

Her hearing concluded at 10 a.m. on November 16, 2017. Simmons figured it would take months for the court to make a decision.

However, within hours, the court issued a unanimous order allowing her the right to take the next bar exam.

“I was in shock. I just remember falling to my knees and crying because I was just so incredibly grateful, and I couldn’t believe that I had finally received what I consider to be justice,” Simmons said.

Simmons took the bar exam February 27 and 28, and found out she had passed on April 13.

It was particularly ironic timing to Simmons, because it was the second Friday in April the previous year that the Washington State Bar had denied her.

When Simmons found out she had passed the bar exam she was ecstatic.

“I was jumping up and down. I was super excited and happy,” Simmons said.

Today, she is working at the Public Defender Association in Seattle while she awaits being sworn in—and officially becoming an attorney.