Can People With Criminal Records Become Lawyers? These Michigan Attorneys Did It
DETROIT — Becoming a lawyer in Michigan after a felony conviction is challenging, but it’s not impossible.
Tenisha Yancey did it, before she was elected to the state House, even though law school admissions officials warned that she probably wouldn’t pass an evaluation that judged her character.
Robert VanSumeren did it just last month, sworn in by the same Hillsdale County judge who sentenced him to prison 20 years ago.
“I feel secure again in my life,” said VanSumeren, of Jackson, who spent nearly six years in state prison for bank robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. “I feel restored in society. Even though my convictions remain and my story will be known, I feel restored.”
A felony doesn’t automatically disqualify someone from practicing law in Michigan. But people trying to make the transition from prisoner to lawyer face additional scrutiny. Most are put through a character and fitness evaluation that is more intense than other applicants. In the most exhaustive instances, this comprehensive background check can involve a trial-like hearing that delves into an applicant’s moral character.
This process can range from six months to a year or stretch even longer in some cases, said Avis Choulagh, a character and fitness attorney in Fraser. He advises clients with criminal histories to anticipate an emotional ride and prepare to show the strides they’ve made since the poor decisions of their past.
“The whole question is: Are you fit to practice law today? There’s no secret formula. There’s no recipe,” Choulagh said. “If you can accept your past and put it behind you and not explain or justify what you did … it’ll go a much longer way.”
Yancey, 43, considers the felonies and misdemeanors on her record the mistakes of her youth. At ages 19 and 20, she was convicted of retail fraud, stalking and leaving the scene of a property damage accident.
Her experience with the criminal justice system, including time spent in county jail, would later inform her approach as a prosecuting attorney in juvenile court.
“You got in trouble, but that doesn’t define you,” said Yancey, D-Harper Woods, recalling the lessons she would share with young defendants in court. “What defines you is what you do with this experience going forward.”
Yancey worked for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office before her run for office in 2017. Landing the job wasn’t easy. Prosecutor Kym Worthy told the Detroit Free Press in a statement that she was “uneasy” with the nature of Yancey’s convictions even though Yancey had cleared the character and fitness evaluation to practice law.
Yancey, a graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, recalled asking Worthy in a job interview, “What is it that we’re saying about our criminal justice system if we don’t have the belief that it’s rehabilitating?”
Worthy said she agreed to give Yancey a chance after “hearing her story and seeing her tenacity.” She brought Yancey on as a paralegal and later promoted her to assistant prosecutor.
“She worked extremely hard and she earned it,” Worthy said. “I think that her background also gave her a unique perspective in the Juvenile Division as well.”
States have varying rules for determining if and when someone with a criminal record can become a licensed attorney.
Nearly all felony convictions render applicants ineligible in Mississippi. In Kansas, Missouri and Texas, people must wait five years after their prison term or probation ends to apply for admission to the bar. Florida and Georgia require that people with felonies first receive a restoration of civil rights through an application process.
Those applying to the state bar in Michigan start by filling out an affidavit of personal history. Among other things, it asks about pending charges, prior convictions and expunged offenses. A list of other conduct, such as cheating on a law school exam or falling behind on unresolved debt, can also raise red flags.
Applications that aren’t initially approved are forwarded to a committee of volunteer lawyers for an in-person interview.
That panel’s recommendation is then referred to a second committee, which can choose to hold a formal hearing that operates like a trial with evidence and sworn witness testimony. The applicant bears the burden of proving that they have good moral character.
The Board of Law Examiners, nominated by the Michigan Supreme Court and appointed by the governor, makes the final decision. In the case of a prior criminal conviction, the board considers factors such as the nature of the offense, when the crime occurred and how the applicant has been rehabilitated.
In recent years, the hurdles facing former prisoners who try to become licensed attorneys have drawn national headlines. One formerly incarcerated Connecticut man hopes to clear barriers for aspiring attorneys by starting the National Justice Impact Bar Association that could push for change.
Daniel Manville, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Michigan State University College of Law, believes he was one of the first few people in the country to become a licensed attorney with a criminal history. His admission to the District of Columbia bar in the 1980s came after a four-year fight and a court ruling that some law students read about today.
As a college student in 1972, Manville used chloroform to knock out three men while trying to recover stolen drugs and cash from an apartment. One of the men died from an unusual reaction. Manville pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
He spent almost four years in prison in Jackson, where he pored over law textbooks and became a jailhouse lawyer. His incarceration set him on a path to specialize in prisoners’ rights litigation.
He’s published a self-help legal manual for prisoners and receives letters from people behind bars across the country seeking advice on how to enter the profession. He tells them it’s essential to find internships, jobs and other affiliations after prison.
“The biggest thing is the track record. I probably tell them that a dozen times,” said Manville, 72. “We have to show the public that we’re trustworthy.”
A FITTING CONCLUSION
VanSumeren, 40, used to scour the internet for examples of formerly incarcerated people who’d made something of themselves.
He thrust himself into education after his release from prison in 2005, going first to community college and then earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in comparative religion from Western Michigan University.
None of his professors and advisers could tell him whether his criminal history would disqualify him from entering a licensed profession. He read about Manville and others, which gave VanSumeren hope that he could be a lawyer, too.
VanSumeren applied to four law schools, disclosing his criminal record. One replied with a stinging rejection letter that barred him from applying in the future, he said.
Wayne State University Law School wait-listed and then eventually accepted him. But his admittance was no guarantee that he’d be permitted to practice law after graduation.
“Some days, I’m sitting there enduring the stress of law school, and not very far in the back of my mind is the fact that this may all be pointless,” VanSumeren said.
He passed the bar exam in 2018. A roughly yearlong and “emotionally exhausting” character and fitness process concluded with his recent admission to the Michigan bar.
The courthouse where he was sentenced seemed like a fitting setting for his swearing-in ceremony.
“It’s nice to see you under different circumstances,” Hillsdale Circuit Judge Michael Smith told VanSumeren that November afternoon in court.
VanSumeren’s wife snapped photos from the jury box beside their two young sons. In the gallery sat his mother, who had watched, devastated, as her 19-year-old son was hauled off to prison two decades earlier.
There were former high school teachers who’d mentored him in prison, a friend from graduate school, and colleagues at the nonprofit where VanSumeren was recently promoted to corporate counsel.
When it was time for VanSumeren to speak, just sworn-in as the 169th attorney admitted in the county, he credited his friends and family.
He turned to his supporters and nodded.
“It takes a village,” he said.
©2019 Detroit Free Press
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