After 20 tries, law grad passes the bar but is barred from law practice in Massachusetts
A persistent law graduate who passed the bar exam nearly 30 years after his 1985 graduation won’t be able to join the Massachusetts bar as a result of a decision by the state’s top court.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court refused to allow Lionel Porter to become a lawyer in an April 22 opinion noted by the Legal Profession Blog.
The court cited unlicensed legal work that Porter did as a paralegal for another lawyer, Stephen Hrones. Porter was operating “a virtually independent discrimination law practice,” according to the 2010 opinion that suspended Hrones for failing to supervise Porter.
Porter passed the bar exam administered in February 2014 on his 20th try, he said near the beginning of his December 2021 oral arguments in the case. The Legal Profession Blog said Porter presented “a very professional pro se argument.”
Porter is a resident of the Cabot Park Village, an independent living community in Newtonville, Massachusetts, according to a March 2021 article highlighting Porter’s accomplishments. He was 78 at the time that the article was written.
Porter earned a bachelor’s degree in 1966, obtained a master’s degree in 1970, and made progress toward a PhD, according to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He entered law school in 1981 and graduated in May 1985.
In one of his jobs after graduation, Porter worked at the NAACP, in which he reviewed, drafted and filed discrimination complaints at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Nonlawyers working for qualifying nonprofits are allowed to file complaints with the MCAD, but that exemption didn’t apply to nonlawyers working at law firms.
When he began working for Hrones, Porter handled all the discrimination cases himself, according to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Porter did not dispute that he engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, the court said.
“Porter affirmatively acknowledged, for example, that he signed Hrones’s name on an affidavit, accepted clients, negotiated fees, filed complaints, drafted pleadings, conducted discovery, advised clients as to their legal rights, settled cases and performed other legal work,” the court said.
The court cited some missteps by Porter while working on the cases. He missed some filing deadlines, and a default judgment was entered against his client in one case. He also kept client retainer funds for personal use on at least one occasion, telling the board that he did so because there were times that he didn’t have money.
Porter said he didn’t earn a salary while working for Hrones’ law firm. The firm had paid Porter two-thirds of the contingency fees in employment cases that Porter worked on, according to past coverage of Hrones’ suspension for a year and a day.
The court said it wasn’t satisfied that Porter appreciates the wrongfulness of his earlier unauthorized practice.
The court also cited inconsistent disclosures on Porter’s multiple bar applications regarding old criminal charges, most of which were dismissed. He did, however, plead guilty to operation of an unregistered motor vehicle.
Porter told the ABA Journal that he saw the audio of his oral argument in the case, and it confirms his belief that he has to be an attorney and he should be in the courtroom.
“That’s where I belong. That’s where I still aspire to be,” he says.
Porter says he had the temperament to be a lawyer, and he had the tools, starting with his graduation from the University of Connecticut’s night law school.
He didn’t pass the bar exam, he says, until he took a bar review course, thanks to a scholarship that he received.
Porter made a decision early on to be an advocate for others, and he has not been deterred from that determination. He attributes his perseverance to “a clear belief, an unflinching desire to serve.”
Part of the impetus for pursuing a legal career, he says, was his awareness of discrimination, which he encountered firsthand as a child in Mississippi.
Porter says police had chased a young Black man into his neighborhood, where they shot and killed him. Porter’s neighbors wanted to wash away the blood, but police wouldn’t allow it. The blood was kind of a threat left by police for the residents of his middle-class Black neighborhood, he says.
Porter and his sister remember seeing the blood on the street when they were walking to church.
“I didn’t know at the time how much of an impact it would have on me,” he says.
Porter joined Hrones’ firm because he viewed the civil rights lawyer as an excellent mentor. In his work at the firm, Porter helped discrimination clients who couldn’t get representation from larger law firms because they couldn’t afford the high retainer.
There was no intent to break the law, he says.
“It just didn’t dawn on us at the time that it was a breach,” Porter says. “And we were happy to help these people,” Porter says.
Updated April 27 at 10:45 a.m. to include comments from Lionel Porter.