Shon Hopwood.jpg“I used to be a bank robber.”

That’s an attention-grabbing lede for a personal essay for a law school application. Or:

“The Supreme Court granted my very first petition for cert. And then ruled in my favor unanimously.”

Shon Hopwood, 34, could start his application with either one of those statements. Convicted of five robberies in Nebraska in the late ’90s, he was sentenced to prison for 13 years, writes Adam Liptak in the New York Times:

Mr. Hopwood spent much of that time in the prison law library, and it turned out he was better at understanding the law than breaking it. He transformed himself into something rare at the top levels of the American bar, and unheard of behind bars — an accomplished Supreme Court practitioner.

Hopwood wrote a petition for cert for a fellow inmate, John Fellers, in 2002. Not only was it granted, veteran Supreme Court advocate Seth Waxman says, “It was probably one of the best cert. petitions I have ever read.”

High praise for a dude who doesn’t even have a law degree…

Waxman agreed to take on the case, but only if Hopwood would stay involved:

The former solicitor general showed the bank robber drafts of his briefs. The two men consulted about how to frame the arguments, discussed strategy and tried to anticipate questions from the justices.

Good thing Hopwood was safe in prison at the time. Many a WilmerHale junior associate would kill for the opportunity to work so closely with Waxman.

Things worked out well for them. The case was decided in favor of Fellers. The Court found that the police had crossed constitutional lines in questioning Fellers, and he ultimately had four years shaved off his sentence.

Hopwood got out of prison in 2008, after a few more successful turns as a jailhouse lawyer. For now, he’s working for a printer of Supreme Court briefs. The employer was reluctant to hire a convicted felon, but Waxman vouched for him.

Next step? Drafting that personal essay:

Mr. Hopwood, who is 34, said he hopes to apply to law school next year. Richard Friedman, a law professor at the University of Michigan who worked with Mr. Hopwood on the briefs for a recent Supreme Court case, said that he has already talked to the admissions office there about saving a spot.

Guaranteed entrance to one of the country’s top law schools? Being an apple in Waxman’s eye? A successful cert. petition under his belt? An appreciation for Radiohead?

The future is looking shiny for Hopwood, as long as the bank robbery conviction is not a stumbling block on a future character and fitness test.

A Mediocre Criminal, but an Unmatched Jailhouse Lawyer [New York Times]


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