Former Convict Defies Odds, Becomes a Lawyer

By William Vogeler, Esq. on June 19, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Tarra Simmons was troubled on every side, locked in a prison of her own making.

Incarcerated on drug and theft charges, she stared at the walls for almost two years. She never imagined what she recently experienced when she passed the bar exam.

"This day is the finale of a really long and hard journey that started when I was in prison," Simmons told the Associated Press. "When I was at my lowest moment, I never thought that it would be this amazing."

Sends a Message

Everyone who has survived law school and the bar exam knows the feeling. But when Simmons was sworn in as a member of the Washington State Bar last week, she wanted everyone to know something more.

"I hope that this sends a message to people that you are never defined by your worst mistakes," she told a television audience.

The odds were against her since childhood. She was born to parents with substance abuse problems, raised in poverty, and surrounded by crime.

With periods of homelessness, she ran away at age 13. The turning point came when she went to jail in 2011 for organized retail theft, drug possession, and unlawful possession of a firearm. At that point, she resolved to change her life.

Moral Fitness

Simmons sought treatment while in prison, and she began serving her community as an advocate for legal aid when she was released. She graduated magna cum laude from the Seattle University School of Law in 2017.

But then the Washington State Bar denied her application to sit for the bar exam because of her criminal history. The Washington Supreme Court reversed, saying "one's past does not dictate one's future."

With the bar exam behind her, Simmons says she will continue a fellowship she won for public interest work. But now she can represent people in court.

"There's a lot of people like me with great potential who've also earned a second chance, but need pro bono representation so they can also move forward in life," she told the ABA Journal.

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