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Applying with a Criminal Record
Can I still go to law school and become a lawyer if I have a criminal record?
Yes! In fact, many current law students and lawyers have asked this same question. Criminal records are not an automatic bar from anyone attending law school, and almost all states allow persons with records to apply to be an attorney.
Recently, two attorneys with criminal records — Reginald Dwayne Betts and Desmond Meade — earned MacArthur Fellowships, also known as “Genius Grants,” for their work after law school. Betts attended Yale Law School, and works in both poetry and criminal justice. Meade attended Florida International University School of Law and works to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens.
Betts and Meade are just two of the many successful attorneys who share your background. This page is designed to help you understand the process of applying to law school with a criminal record.
Have other people done this?
Yes. There are many lawyers practicing today who have criminal records or have been incarcerated. We spoke to three such people.
Tarra Simmons is a lawyer and current Washington State Representative. She spent 30 months in prison, which led her to help fight to support people who were released from prison. She graduated with honors from the Seattle University School of Law.
Shon Robert Hopwood is an appellate lawyer and professor at law at Georgetown University Law Center. He spent over 10 years in prison, during which he was an active “jailhouse lawyer,” supporting inmates in reducing their sentences. He graduated from the University of Washington Law School.
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a lawyer, poet, and award-winning author. At 16, he was sentenced to over eight years in prison. He graduated from Yale Law School and is currently is a Ph.D. in Law candidate at Yale University. He now works on criminal justice reform, including founding the Million Books Project. He was awarded a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship, informally known as a “genius” grant. The MacArthur Fellowship comes with a stipend of $625,000 to each recipient paid out over five years, and is given to recipients as “an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential,” according the MacArthur Foundation.
You can hear their thoughts about becoming a lawyer here:
Dwayne Betts has also penned an article discussing his journey, which you can read here.
What additional steps do I need to do in the application process?
When you apply to law school, you may see a question on the application such as “Are you currently under indictment, or have you ever been convicted, placed on probation, or given a deferred adjudication or diversion program for a criminal offense? Have you ever been arrested or cited for any criminal violation?” Questions like this are part of the “Character & Fitness” section, commonly shortened to “C&F”. In this section, you will answer the question truthfully and provide any context and reflection about the incident.
This site breaks down how to approach the C&F section. The most important note is to ensure you know what each school is requiring. Some schools may only ask about criminal charges from the last five years. Some may request all charges, even if your record is expunged. Be sure that you know what the school is requesting.
Watch Tarra Simmons, Shon Hopwood, and Dwayne Betts discuss how to tell schools and classmates about any records.
Watch them discuss best practices for law school applications.
How does a criminal conviction affect my financial aid?
Likely a prior record will not have a significant impact on aid, but it can depend on the state and school. Additionally, schools may also have their own financial aid services that are not tied to state or federal aid, giving them more flexibility in their financial aid awards. You should reach out to the schools directly to find out more. If you are worried about disclosing personal information, you can withhold your name, or ask someone to call on your behalf.
Watch Tarra Simmons, Shon Hopwood, and Dwayne Betts discuss their own access to financial aid.
Will a criminal record affect my ability to practice as a lawyer?
It depends. Again, this is state specific. Almost all states will license people with criminal records to become attorneys, though some have extra restrictions of which you should be aware. Only three states explicitly forbid persons with felony convictions from becoming lawyers in the state: Texas, Kansas, and Mississippi. You can find more information here.
It’s worth researching which state you want to practice while researching law schools. Law school specific policies and state policies will both determine your ability to practice. If you want to practice in Ohio, for example, it makes sense to apply to schools in that area, while also understanding Ohio’s requirements for lawyers.
Watch our speakers discuss this topic.