PORTLAND, Maine — Christopher Poulos has overcome many obstacles in his 33 years — the deaths of his grandfather and stepfather in his senior year of high school, addiction to alcohol and drugs in his late teens and early 20s, and a 2½-year stint in federal prison.
On Saturday, Poulos of Yarmouth will be one of 82 people to graduate from the University of Maine School of Law at the Merrill Auditorium. After that he will face the same test many of his fellow graduates will face: the Maine bar exam.
In addition to passing the exam, Poulos, a federal drug felon, will have to show by a preponderance of the evidence that he has left his past far behind and is of good moral character.
“Under all the criteria, I believe I have a good case,” Poulos said in a telephone interview last week. “I spent time researching the issue before I applied to law school. I know there is no guarantee.”
The rules that govern the Maine Board of Bar Examiners, which administers the bar exam, require that individuals who want to practice law in the state must graduate from an accredited law school, pass the Maine bar exam and “be of good character and fitness” to practice law.
It is up to the applicant to reveal any criminal history or behavior that might make a person “unfit,” such as a history of substance abuse. Criminal conduct or an addiction problem would trigger a hearing before some or all members of the board, according to its rules.
Factors the panel would take into account include the following:
— The person’s age at the time of the conduct
— How serious the conduct was and how recently it occurred
— Evidence of rehabilitation
— The person’s positive social contributions since the conduct
— The person’s candor in the admissions process
— Omissions or misrepresentations made during the admissions process
Although the character requirement is a prerequisite to getting a license to practice law in every state, Maine is one of the few where it is included in a state statute. That law states that an adult felony conviction in any state or federal court “raises a presumption the applicant has not met this [character] requirement.”
To rebut that, a person must show “that extraordinary circumstances surrounded the commission of the crime or that a reasonable amount of time has passed since the applicant’s conviction and completion of sentence and there is evidence of complete rehabilitation based on the applicant’s subsequent history.”
The law was passed in 1994 after Harvey Prager’s appointment as a law clerk for Maine Supreme Court Justice Dana Howard became controversial. Prager, a former Portland resident who has practiced law in Boston since 2003, pleaded guilty in 1988 to smuggling 11 tons of marijuana, according to a previously published report. Unlike Poulos, Prager never spent time behind bars. Prager is not licensed to practice in Maine.
Bangor lawyer Jeffrey Silverstein, a member of the Board of Bar Examiners since 2008, said Wednesday he could not comment on Poulos’ situation but said fitness hearings for law school graduates are rare. Hearings concerning lawyers who have been convicted of crimes after being admitted to the bar in other states wanting to practice in Maine are more common but still are requested on average just once or twice per year.
The character issue can be such a high hurdle to overcome, especially for a person convicted of a drug crime, that Peter Pitegoff, former dean of the Maine law school, discussed options other than law school, such as working as a paralegal, with Poulos the first time the two met, Pitegoff said Thursday.
“The actions of someone after serving time in prison are critical,” Pitegoff, who now teaches full time at the law school, said. “Past conduct might be indicative of future conduct, good or bad. But, if part of the past is being a good citizen that could work in someone’s favor.”
If admitted to the bar, Poulos, who was convicted of selling $7,780 worth of cocaine to a confidential informant in March 2007, would not be the first federal felon to practice in Maine.
Miklos M. Pongratz, 51, of Raymond was admitted to the bar in 2004 after a panel of the board of bar examiners found he was fit to practice despite a 1998 federal conviction in Arizona for conspiracy to distribute $14 million of marijuana.
Portland attorney John Branson said Thursday that Poulos should be admitted to the Maine bar once he passes the bar exam. Poulos worked for Branson as a law clerk and paralegal from May 2012 to August 2013 before entering law school.
“What impressed me most about his character is that he’s pursued his dream, even though he knew his past could be held against him [when applying to law school] and still could be held against him,” Branson said. “He’s willing to go forward and break down barriers, not just for himself but for others. Chris really has tried to make an impact in a broader setting outside the law school.”
Poulos also has been open about his addiction and recovery, Branson said. While in law school, Poulos represented juveniles while working at the law school’s legal clinic. He also served on Portland’s Substance Use Disorder Task Force, was an intern at The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
On Wednesday, Poulos was elected to the board of the Milestone Foundation, which operates the wet shelter and treatment facility on India Street in Portland, Branson, a fellow board member said.
“His aim in life appears to be to use his talents to help benefit others and to help elected officials understand that plague of addiction and incarceration in a way that doesn’t punish people for life,” Branson said. “He clearly has the energy, focus and fortitude that would be assets to any law firm, any government entity that employs lawyers, and any organization interested in helping shape public policy around criminal justice and addiction.”
Poulos said last week that he does not yet have a job but has had several interviews.
“I would like to work as an attorney with a focus on public policy related to addiction and recovery,” he said. “We’re at a moment in society where people are paying attention to addiction, drug use and mass incarceration. I’d like to be in the middle of this.”