Should Ex-Convicts Be Lawyers?

Inmates who study for years are often barred from law, medicine and other fields when they get out. With 700,000 released annually, the distaste for ex-cons poses a problem.

Timothy McManus

Photographer: Ian C. Bates for Bloomberg

While he was serving a 20-year sentence in a Texas state penitentiary, Timothy McManus became a regular at the law library. The cool, quiet place offered relief from the tension and cacophony of the prison yard. As he wrestled with the nuances of depositions and law journal articles, he began to see that the library offered more than a break. He was hooked on the law.

Released in 2011, McManus (an old family name he uses for privacy) has spent years offering inmates and recent parolees free legal research and help preparing appeals. From his home in Georgia, he has closely followed criminal justice news and gorged on industry publications such as PrisonLegalNews.org, which is founded by former inmates, and the Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual, all with an eye to law school and, ultimately, the bar. In addition to first-hand experience of the justice system, he has recommendations from professors and legal professionals and, in his junior year of an online bachelor's degree program in legal studies, a 3.92 GPA.

He is ready to give it all up.

Put off by the message he’s gotten from the profession and from other ex-inmates who have found the way barred, McManus, 61, said he hardly sees the point in trying.

“It’s like a country club,” he said, citing  the “good moral character and general fitness” requirements of the bar association of Georgia, where he feels tied to an elderly relative he helps care for. 

“But it’s also a missed opportunity,” McManus said. “They don’t want people in there who actually know how the system works.”

As the U.S. prison population has surged over the decades, the legal profession’s distaste for former inmates has become more conspicuous. And it isn’t only law. Medical schools often have committees to evaluate cases and mitigating factors but are generally reluctant to admit ex-inmates. Other high-skill, white-collar jobs, including in academia, have long had elaborate vetting processes. In one case—scandalous for the applicant or for her rejection, depending on your point of view—Michelle Jones, a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at New York University, saw her admission to Harvard rescinded after the school considered her two decades in prison for murdering her four-year-old son.

Roughly 70 million people in the U.S. are estimated to have a criminal record of some kind, and nearly 700,000 are released from incarceration annually, according to the National Employment Law Project. More than 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed a year after their release, according to the Sentencing Project, and those who do find work take home 40 percent a year less than those who haven’t served time.

Nationwide, 150 cities and counties have adopted laws that prohibit employers from asking job applicants about their criminal histories, as part of the “ban the box” movement. Still, applicants with criminal records are far less likely than others to get a job. That aversion leaves thousands of able people unemployed, even as companies have trouble filling skilled positions. It requires government funds and services for the sidelined workers, and burdens family members who help out with food, shelter and child support, limiting their own contributions to the economy.

Cleodis Floyd, indicted on 65 felony charges, applied to more than 80 law schools before the University of Oregon admitted him. Today, he is a member of the Washington State bar and the NFL Players Association.   
Photographer: Ian C. Bates for Bloomberg

It’s the employer’s loss, said Dylan Minor, an assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. People with criminal records stay much longer in a job and are less likely than others to quit, according to his research, which didn’t focus on the legal profession.

“Having a more loyal worker can be very valuable to a company, as turnover can be very costly,” Minor said. “I think the resistance from employers partly comes from the belief that if they hire an ex-offender, [he or she is] more likely to commit some crime within the firm or hurt its reputation.”

Those who are incarcerated or on probation or parole generally can’t vote, either. In Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe is trying to remove those restrictions.

The American Bar Association says the public must be “secure in its expectation that those who are admitted to the bar are worthy of the trust and confidence clients may reasonably place in their lawyers.” That said, a spokesman cited the ABA’s “green book,” which shuns questions about “mental health history, diagnoses or treatment when determining character and fitness for the purpose of bar admission.” Among the ABA’s stated goals is to “promote full and equal participation in the association, our profession, and the justice system by all persons” and “eliminate bias in the legal profession and the justice system.”

But the green book doesn’t specifically address the fitness of former inmates. Decisions are often made on a case-by-case basis by the states, and most state bar associations use a “moral character and fitness” standard, similar to Georgia’s, whose nuances vary widely across the country.

State bar associations, for their part, fear a public relations mess if they admit someone with a criminal history, and weigh the risk of a repeat offense while the person is practicing law, particularly one that could harm clients, Don Lundberg, a lawyer who formerly sat on the Indiana bar’s disciplinary counsel, said.

“To some extent, you’re looking at past behaviors to try and look at the future,” Lundberg said. “You want the bar examiners to feel very, very comfortable with the idea that as bad as something was, it created an experience from which someone grew, learned, and was formative in terms of their character.”

John Salmon, director of Georgia’s Office of Bar Admissions, said his employees “look at each file individually and believe in the concept of rehabilitation. It’s not a closed door.”

“I made a serious mistake when I was younger. I knew that.”
Photographer: Ian C. Bates for Bloomberg

For inmates who have worked toward a career in law, learning when they get out that they are ineligible is “heartbreaking,” Cleodis Floyd, an attorney and professional football agent in Seattle, said. They may spend years helping inmates and former inmates with how parole hearings work, the right to counsel, the pros and cons of taking a plea bargain—all the advice a lawyer would offer, without the crowning achievement.

Floyd was an honor student and football star in high school and played Division I football at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. It was there that he and some friends were implicated in an ATM and fraudulent-check scheme that netted them an estimated $100,000 in cash. Working as an intern in a courthouse in Seattle in 2005, and thinking the case against him was over, Floyd said, he learned that he had been indicted on 65 felony charges, including theft, identity theft, fraud and allegations of organized crime.

“I was worried,” he said. “It sounded like Mafia stuff.”

Floyd was sentenced to five years of “community corrections,” including time in jail and a halfway house, and seven years of probation. He had already applied and been accepted to law school; when he was charged, his full scholarship was gone. He volunteered as a mentor and applied to 80 more law schools before the University of Oregon admitted him. Three weeks before he was scheduled to take the bar exam in Washington, he was told that he couldn’t sit for the test because of his criminal record.

“I was so discouraged that people wouldn’t give me a second chance,” he said. “I made a serious mistake when I was younger. I knew that.”

Boosted by references from law school professors and lawyers he had interned with, Floyd was admitted to the bar in Washington in early 2013. He faced a similar challenge when he applied to join the National Football League Players Association, which certifies agents for the NFL, and prevailed.

Floyd said his experience has helped him connect with clients. He regularly gets calls from former convicts trying to pursue legal careers, he said, such as Shon Hopwood, whom he referred to a mentor who could represent him at his Washington bar admission hearing. In 2015, Hopwood became a licensed lawyer in the state and is something of a celebrity.

At Tulane Law School, in New Orleans, an uproar broke out when an article online revealed that one of its students, Bruce Reilly, had served a 12-year sentence for a second-degree murder charge when he was 19. Reilly, now 44, graduated in 2014 and is the deputy director of Voice of the Experienced, a nonprofit group that fights ex-inmate stigma, working with clients who may be barred from housing and employment to which they’re legally entitled. He has also advocated to end mandatory-sentence minimums and for ban-the-box in his state. His probation is to end when he’s 65.

Many inmates, upon release, may not have friends, family or financial support, let alone access to a minimum wage job, Reilly noted. All are critical just in getting a law school application together.

“It’s hard to get the space and time to do this stuff,” he said. “It seemed like the dumbest thing in the world at the time to leave [his paying job] and take on $200,000 in debt. Imagine starting undergrad at 30 and you have no folks.”

“They don’t want people in there who actually know how the system works.”
Photographer: Ian C. Bates for Bloomberg

Reilly, who applied to more than 30 law schools, said the schools “are dead scared of a PR fiasco, which is totally understandable. But they also weigh whether you’re going to pass the bar or not, and they don’t want you to bring down their stats. Ex-inmates who want to go have to outshine everyone else in a huge way. We couldn’t have any blemishes when up against these super-high LSAT scores and letters of recommendation from governors.”

He is currently using his legal education for advocacy and other work beyond the courtroom.

“Some of us are treated like savages, even though we’re educated,” Reilly said. He added that “for most of these folks, law school isn’t the hardest thing they’ve done in their lives.”

McManus, discouraged by his prospects, plans to end his legal studies program at the end of the semester.

“I don’t feel like going into a prolonged battle. I just don’t have the years left to do all of that,” he said. “I’ve been there. I see how it works.”

 

(Corrects name of Reilly's organization, Voice of the Experienced, and clarifies Reilly's latest efforts in the fourth paragraph from the end.)