From prison bars to the bar

Tarra Simmons is a lawyer. While for most law grads that’s what’s expected, Simmons had to overcome an extra obstacle.

Simmons, who graduated from Seattle University School of Law in 2017, is an ex-convict. She served 20 months for selling drugs, before cleaning up her life and enrolling in law school.

The Washington State Supreme Court recently held that her character was exactly what made her qualified, and allowed her to be admitted to the bar.

So what helped her turn things around? Lawyers and law students.

Students from The Incarcerated Mothers Advocacy Project at Seattle University School of Law visited her in prison. They helped her keep custody of her children, maintain her nurse’s license and protect her house from foreclosure — no small feats.

However, when she got out of prison, the only work she could find was at Burger King. Being an ex-con kept derailing her.

Her legal advocates suggested she’d consider law school. She showed a passion for it. Plus, she figured if she couldn’t find a job, she could start her own firm. Her prison record would not hold her back.

Throughout her time in law school, she’s been an advocate for people facing similar problems. She speaks publicly about what’s she been through. One of the most difficult challenges was being saddled with Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs), which are assessed to prisoners and must be paid back with interest. After hearing her speak about how daunting that was, a judge helped pay her off LFOs.

While in law school, she co-founded an advocacy group called Civil Survival to work on issues of addiction and help former prisoners re-enter society. In 2016, she was awarded the prestigious Skadden Fellowship, and with that, she’s establishing a program to assist formerly incarcerated clients. Indeed, it was those efforts that led the National Jurist magazine to honor her as one of the Law Students of the Year in 2017. 

Today, she credits the many people who came to her rescue during the years — from lawyers to social workers — for her success.

“I’ve been blessed,” she said. “It’s definitely taken a village to raise me.”

She added: "I hope this sends a message to other people that you're never defined by your worst mistakes," Simmons said at her swearing-in ceremony. "You can keep coming back, there's always a can still achieve whatever it is you want."