Thank You, Shon Hopwood
Practice law long enough and a certain weariness sets in. It’s more than a function of aging, although that is certainly a factor. But it’s also the accumulated wear and tear of too close an acquaintance with sorrow, anger, fear – the raw emotions spawned by the needs that drive clients to your office. Law offices are not happy places.
So when renewal comes, when grace abounds, you give such thanks as you can. Today I write to thank Shon Hopwood. His memoir, Law Man, is the perfect love story for lawyers wondering whether the race is still worth running.
Hopwood teaches law at Georgetown University Law Center. But that’s hardly remarkable. Law professors abound.
What is remarkable is the path Hopwood took.
As a young man, he stumbled through some college and a brief stint in the Navy, aimlessly, perhaps drunkenly, wandering into a brief career as a bank robber in the Midwest. Five heists into his career, he was arrested, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to a decade behind bars in federal prison.
Nothing in his childhood seems to explain the turn toward criminality: He comes from an intact family, there is no history of criminal conduct among those closest to him, his parents appear to have been loving, he was not poor, and, he is white. But off he went to serve in the belly in the beast.
He writes convincingly and familiarly about what it took to survive. In the bleak moral landscape of a prison, respect was all men had left – you had to be prepared to fight savagely to maintain it. Yet the relationships men formed behind bars were informed by a wary sort of sidelong love.
While in prison, Hopwood discovered the law, first through a chance assignment to the law library as prison employment. Then by learning to do legal research the old-fashioned way, with books, paper and legal pad. While a prisoner, he drafted two successful petitions for certioiari to the United States Supreme Court on behalf of fellow prisoners, and, apparently, scores of other briefs for fellow inmates that were filed, and were often successful, in various federal courts throughout the country.
He became a lawyer the old-fashioned way, by listening to people in need, hitting the books, spotting issues, drafting, and then redrafting, briefs. All this while behind bars. All this before he ever set foot in a law school. His memoir shows him falling in love with the law.
It also shows him falling in love with a girl from his hometown, a girl he always thought beyond his reach, a runner, sleekly gliding down the country roads he aimlessly drove. She’d wave and smile as he drove by. He thought of her often, and always as a prize he could never win.
Years into his sentence she wrote to him. They fell in love. Upon his release, they unite, marry, and begin a family. He finds a job, improbably enough, at one of the nation’s specialty printers, Cockle Printers, a firm devoted to preparing Supreme Court briefs. (Cockle is a meticulous editor of briefs, which makes the various editing errors in Law Man a little hard to take.) All this while he attends law school at the University of Washington, where he is given a public service fellowship. He then clerks for a federal appellate court judge.
He writes about all this like a man awaking from a surgery he was sure he would not survive. “Grace happens,” he writes.
I needed to read those words, and I needed to see the transforming power of love at work in the life of a colleague and peer, another law man walking the walk amid the dreadful shadows inhabiting the courts. Hopwood is a man redeemed. He knows how rare such redemption is. He and his wife have devoted themselves to service and to love.
It took myriad acts of grace to draw Hopwood back into society. Small gifts, seemingly insignificant acts of kindness, paved his way. He writes movingly to thank those who helped him.
Hopwood isn’t naïve. There’s no easy sentimentality evident in his book. And while the writing rarely soars, it is always honest. Hopwood is a live man walking. He was rescued by love.
Thank you, Shon Hopwood, for this tale of amazing grace. Somehow, it’s just the thing I needed to read just now, when the weight of so many people’s woes oppress, and I sometimes wonder whether the law’s road is more difficult a walk than I have the endurance to follow.
Hopwood and another former inmate, Michael Santos, have formed an entity called Prison Professors LLC. They want to help ease the burden of current and former inmates. They want to share the grace and return the love they have been given. Hopwood sets an example for this weary traveler.
Again, I say thank you, Shon Hopwood, for this tale of amazing grace.