Student Tarra Simmons wins prestigious Skadden Fellowship

December 02, 2016

Tarra SimmonsStudent Tarra Simmons has received a prestigious Skadden Fellowship. She is the first law student from Seattle University to join this elite group of dedicated social justice professionals working on behalf of people who are poor, elderly, disabled, or otherwise deprived of human or civil rights.

After graduation this spring, Simmons will spend the two-year fellowship working with the Public Defender Association (PDA) under Director Lisa Daugaard and Senior Attorney Andrew Kashyap. She'll provide direct representation and policy advocacy on behalf of people formerly involved with the justice system, particularly on issues of employment, housing, and legal debt. 

Simmons is currently a Rule 9 intern at the PDA.

Once described as "a legal Peace Corps" by The Los Angeles Times, the Skadden Fellowship program was established by the international law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in 1988 in recognition of the dire need for greater funding for graduating law students who wish to devote their professional lives to public interest work.

Simmons has dedicated the last four years of her life to protecting the civil rights of people who have served time in prison. It's an issue that's close to her heart because she, too, was formerly incarcerated. In 2013, she was released from prison after serving 20 months on drug charges. As she struggled to find work again and pay off her legal debts, she realized the need for policy changes to help former inmates re-enter society and keep them from returning to prison.

"I had a vision that one day I would have the skills and resources needed to help my own community find a second chance," she said. "I still have a vision that one day we will build a statewide and national movement and no longer be harmed by counterproductive and unfair policies that further harm our families and our community."

As a law student, Simmons has taken her powerful advocacy to judicial conferences, the state legislature, and the Washington Supreme Court, sharing her personal story as a way to drive home the need for reform and re-entry assistance.

"Everything I have done up to this point was to achieve this very goal," Simmons said. "People deserve a second chance. And I won't stop until we are liberated."

The Public Defender Association works on diversion programs for low-level criminal offenses, reducing racial disparity in policing, changes in policy that reduce mass incarceration, and assistance for community activists.

The 2017 Skadden Fellowship cohort, announced on Dec. 2, includes 30 law students from around the United States.

"We hold Tarra out as the exemplar of the powerful advocates for justice we aspire to educate and train at our law school," said Dean Annette E. Clark '89. "We are proud and inspired by what she has accomplished in her life and career thus far."

Fellowships are awarded for two years. Skadden provides each fellow with a salary and pays all fringe benefits to which an employee of the sponsoring organization would be entitled. For those fellows not covered by a law school low-income protection plan, the firm will pay a fellow's law school debt service for the tuition part of the loan for the duration of the fellowship.