Law school admissions are not what they used to be. A decade ago, students were fighting to get into schools. Now, law schools are fighting to get students.
That’s why the admission of Ben Aldana to Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School was unique.
Aldana’s application included what most students, and admission personnel, consider the kiss of death — a prior criminal conviction, with years spent in prison. Aldana was a felon.
The sensitivity to admitting prior criminals into law school stems in part from states’ bar admission guidelines and in part from the American Bar Association’s methods for ranking law schools.
To practice law, a person needs to be admitted to the bar in each state she wishes to practice in. The admission process includes an exam as well as an investigation into the applicant’s character and fitness to practice law. Applicants must disclose all prior convictions. Everything. Even traffic tickets.
An application that includes a drug conviction and substantial prison time is going to give the state’s admissions committee pause. Attorneys are supposed to uphold the law, not break it.
If a state’s bar won’t admit an applicant, then that applicant can’t practice law in the state. And if you can’t practice law, you can’t get a law job. And if you don’t have a law job, then the school you went to won’t get credit for your law job, and its rankings will suffer.
Because a degree without a job isn’t much to brag about.
Aldana has both, though, because he worked hard, and because BYU’s law school took a chance on him. Which is quite appropriate for an institution created to “teach the laws of men in the light of the laws of God.”
He graduated from BYU’s law school this spring and already secured a job as a public defender with the Utah County public defender’s office.
Aldana said prison changed him. He developed empathy and responsibility as he worked in the prison’s dental office. He started wanting more out of life and knew education would be part of his future.
Katie England of The Daily Herald reported that the BYU law school’s admissions committee “was impressed with Aldana’s character, work ethic, and desire to use his experiences to help others.” It helped that he was very transparent about who he had been as a younger man.
Indeed, the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate, not merely punish. We want inmates to learn and grow and recommit their lives.
It’s only fitting that we’re willing to receive them when they do.