Courtney Sargent, Deseret News
Criminal defense lawyer Clayton Simms was honored by the Utah Minority Bar Association.

Make no mistake about it, Clayton Simms' mother is proud that her son became a lawyer. But she cannot help but tease him about being a defense attorney whose work deals with people charged with murder, rape, bank fraud and dealing drugs, among other things.

"I called her recently and asked how her day was and then told her about my day. In the morning, I went to court on a case of a brother who took a hatchet and hit his brother in the head. In the afternoon, I went to the jail and visited a 16-year-old client who is charged with murder," Simms recalls.

"She said, 'That's why you went to college?'"

Simms can laugh about it, but when it comes to his criminal defense efforts, he is all business.

His dedication and hard work were recognized when he recently was named Lawyer of the Year by the Utah Minority Bar Association.

It isn't that Simms approves of crime. Instead, his fervor for defending those charged with crimes stems from his respect for the criminal justice system, with its checks and balances and its necessarily adversarial nature.

"I've always worked for the underdog," Simms said. "It's a challenge and a reward to fight for the underdog and fight authority."

He admits there are "obviously difficult circumstances" since certain crimes — and the people charged with them — are viewed as repulsive. Still, he contends, these people need and deserve legal help.

"I wake up every morning and I'm thrilled," he said. "It's an honor and a responsibility to represent people charged with what society thinks are heinous crimes. They deserve the best representation. They are the people you want to fight for."

Simms, 39, was born to a homemaker mother of Mexican-American descent and an English-German father who sold electronic components. While he was growing up in Houston, his parents emphasized the importance of education. "The expectation was that you were going to go to college — it just wasn't questioned."

Simms had to work for that, however, doing such jobs as cleaning toilets, unloading trucks and wearing a furry ape-bear mascot costume to hand out fliers for a museum.

Simms got his undergraduate degree in business administration from the University of Houston and his law degree from the University of Utah. Once in Utah, he fell in love with the state.

He began his career at the Salt Lake Legal Defender's Association and later went into private practice.

An accomplishment he values highly is being admitted as a fellow into the American Board of Criminal Lawyers — only the fourth attorney from Utah to be so honored. (The others are Ron Yengich, Stephen McCaughey and Brooke Wells, who is now a U.S. magistrate judge.)

Simms and Trystan Smith, a fellow member of the Utah Minority Bar Association, were instrumental in creating the Utah Pledge to Racial and Ethnic Diversity of Utah's Legal Employers in 2003. Since then, many firms have signed on, promising to recruit, train and provide advancement opportunities for minorities.

"When I was young and trying to figure out what I wanted to be, my hero was Thurgood Marshall (the first black person to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and a highly respected jurist)," Simms said. "I saw he could be successful and be top in his profession. I thought if Thurgood Marshall could make it to the highest level, I could be a pretty good lawyer and help people."

E-mail: [email protected]