As a part of our legal trailblazers special issue, we sat down with April Cotton, the first person in her family to attain her Juris Doctor and become a lawyer. She currently practices insurance defense, medical malpractice, nursing home litigation, and correctional health care as an associate attorney at Hall Booth Smith PC. She also teaches at Philander Smith College.
AALM: Tell us about the challenges you overcame to earn your Juris Doctor.
AC: Everything involving my journey into law school, throughout law school, and passing the bar has been a challenge. As you could imagine, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from an Historically Black College, years of employment within a pharmacy, and a 147 on the LSAT weren’t the ideal traits of one that an institution would consider for law school.
I jokingly tell my students, that during that phase of my life I was a very confusing person on paper. A culmination of those factors led me to be denied for admissions to every law school that I applied to. After speaking with numerous admissions committee members across the south, it was clear that the description of my life became a little concerning to the admission committees. They were very congratulatory with respect to many of my accomplishments and was at awe that I had done so with so much responsibility on my shoulders. However, that left them afraid that I would not be the ideal candidate to complete law school or pass the bar.
However, I was blessed to come into the path of Dean Hunter Schwartz and Adjoa Aiyetoro. The pair created a brain child called the Legal Education Advancement Program (L.E.A.P). The program was created to identify and admit individuals of historically underrepresented groups in law school and the legal profession who have displayed the teamwork, leadership, drive, and academic skills necessary to complete law school and pass the bar exam. This program provided me with the opportunity I needed to pursue my dream of becoming an attorney.
AALM: What does it mean to you to be the first attorney in your family?
AC: Walking into a classroom with over 110 students, with only 10 students who were an external reflection of me was tough mentally and emotionally. In that moment, I carried not only the weight of being the first in my family to attend law school, a graduate of an HBCU, a woman, and now 1 of 10 African American representatives. To know that there was a need in my community that needed to be met, and that there was no room for failure was exacerbating.
There was always a question of whether a student with my “background” and “educational experience” had what it took to complete law school. One professor in particular would always make mentions of not knowing whether my undergraduate professors were “tough enough” or “qualified” enough to prepare me for the road ahead of me in law school. She constantly questioned whether law school was a good fit for me or whether I was a good fit for law school.
In the third semester of law school, my fiancé was murdered in a senseless road rage incident. That situation shook me to my core, but I knew that even then there was no time to stop. With much prayer and tunnel vision, I graduated early in December 2016. I began to think that I had time to grieve, when the bar exam snuck in. Once again it was time to prepare and preform, but this time I kept hitting stumbling blocks. While attempting to prepare myself for a murder trial of my loved one and countless appeals my focus became too disjointed to pass the exam.
After receiving several scores stating that I failed by 1.67 points, 2 points, or 5 points, I had a conversation with God asking him to help fix whatever was broken within me so I could move forward in my journey.
AALM: Did you have any mentors who helped you become an attorney?
AC: COVID-19 struck the nation and caused us all to sit down and deal with ourselves, and our trauma. During this time, I was encouraged to sit for the bar again by Beth Levi and Judge Tijuana Byrd. After taking proactive steps to heal all that was broken within me I sat for the Tennessee bar and passed, with the intent of transferring my score back to Arkansas. However, upon passing I noticed that Arkansas had a rule that prohibited me from transferring my score, since I had failed their exam within the last five years. I was devastated, but not discouraged.
AALM: Do you have any professional mentors who helped you find your footing in the profession?
AC: Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robin F. Wynne. While swearing into the Tennessee Bar, we began to discuss my future and the reason why I wasn’t swearing into the Arkansas Bar. I candidly explained that the Supreme Court did not remove the rule after they voted to make Arkansas a UBE state. Justice Wynne promised to look into the rule, so long as I agreed to keep my talents here in Arkansas. He recognized the need for not only diversity, but the need for someone passionate that would pour into the lives of the residents of Arkansas. Justice Wynne brought the conversation and the rule before the Quorum Court. Within eight months the rule was removed. The following week, I was approved to swear into the Arkansas Bar. I am forever grateful for Justice Wynne. He changed my life and the trajectory of my family for generations to come.
AALM: How is the practice of law different than you expected?
AC: Practicing law has been slightly different then what I expected. While in law school, I anticipated that I would be able to help a lot of people within the community and take on cases as I saw fit. However, working at a large firm doesn’t provide me with that kind of flexibility. I thought that I would be able to conquer every area of law, and timeline my practice in the same way. After moving into practice, I have noticed that in some ways one subject matter may find its way into another area of law, but in some areas, you will never see the intersection of the two.
For example, I am interested in correctional health care services and nursing home litigation. The other areas of law that may find its way into those areas of litigation may include, but are not limited to: contracts, decedent and estates, torts and in some cases criminal law. I have learned that every case may not be a passion case, so in this season I have fed my desire for fulfillment in teaching.
AALM: Tell us about a professional achievement you are proud to have accomplished.
AC: As a professor at Philander Smith College, I teach constitutional law, judicial process, and women in politics. Although teaching the curriculum is a key focus of mine, one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching is serving as a sounding board and visual aid for my students. My students are able to look at me and see themselves, as we all have been nurtured and taught at Philander Smith College. We all come from similar backgrounds, and it is important for them to see that in spite of life’s challenges I became a successful attorney. Therefore, they can also make all of their dreams come true.
AALM: Describe your role as a professor at Philander Smith College.
AC: Being an adjunct professor provided me with one of the greatest opportunities to spark minds and instill confidence into future generations of lawyers. While having access to students who intend to pursue their Juris Doctor. I am able to provide sponsorship to each of them. I provide them with insights on what to look out for when applying to law school, test practice materials, fees for testing, and emotional support when the process becomes overwhelming. In the future, I hope to start a scholarship fund and nonprofit to help serve first generation law students.
AALM: Is there anything you would like to add?
AC: I pray that I spark an interest in a young person’s mind and that they may become an attorney and an advocate for social justice.