With the heavy emphasis on the bar exam, it can be easy to overlook another major component of becoming licensed—the part that demonstrates you have the character to practice law and are fit to be an attorney.
Character and Fitness should not be taken lightly, but we don’t often hear much about it, except horror stories that delay you from licensure. In case you haven’t learned this, Character and Fitness is essentially a background check and is apart of the licensing process. Some states require it to be completed as part of bar exam registration, and others permit you to begin the process after taking the bar exam. For these reasons, it is important to familiarize with the Character and Fitness process.
You will want to be prepared and avoid the major pitfalls so that you can seamlessly get licensed. Here are some of the common mistakes applicants can make when it comes to this critical process:
Not Knowing Your Jurisdiction’s Instructions
It is important to thoroughly understand required information that must be reported. This includes a history of where you have lived, attended school, worked, and financial information. You can get started by familiarizing with both the general National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) information about this process, as well as your jurisdiction’s specific instructions.
Be very aware of deadlines, as they vary by state and can mess with your timeline. Be especially considerate of time if you need to complete Character and Fitness to register for the bar exam.
Be sure to have enough time to complete the application process and submit it to the right office on time. Sending the information to the incorrect source can delay the process for you.
Failing to Provide Important Information
Who would choose not to disclose all critical information? Well, this is more common than you might think in the case where the applicant honestly forgot after two decades has passed, or when the applicant honestly did not know! However, when it comes to character and fitness, “I did not know” is not an excuse, in the way not knowing the law is not a defense to breaking the law.
Take for example, your character and fitness requests a history of missed payments to creditors, and you do not disclose missed payments that are on your credit report then you are leaving out requested information.
In another case a friend told me his application asked him to disclose traffic tickets. An investigator found he had racked up $1K in parking tickets. The worst part is that he was not aware as it was his girlfriend who was behind it, but never told him.
Remember that information you are not disclosing will come up in some way, as you will either be asked to provide a written explanation or discuss at an interview.
To avoid these issues, it is always a good idea to review a sample NCBE character and fitness application before you start the real thing.
Submitting Incomplete Information
Be aware that any missing or incomplete information can cause a delay to your overall application so be sure to treat every aspect with the importance and accuracy it deserves.
To get it right, you need to devote the proper time to completing the application. Certain application components may take more time than you might expect, so try to start the process early. There is no harm in being prepared!
Not Preparing to Provide More Information
You should anticipate the kind of additional information you may need to provide. In other kinds of applications, less is better, but not for character and fitness. If the application instructions specifically request documentation to accompany the application—you need to attach the proper documentation. This means you need to hunt down the information. This may mean you need to find a DMV report or disciplinary letter from years back, depending on what is at issue.
Stressing the Interview
The NCBE is clear on their character and fitness website that the jurisdiction will review both your application materials and NCBE’s investigation report. They go on to state that you should expect the possibility of being asked to elaborate on further information or be scheduled for a personal interview. I have heard from two friends that were scheduled for a personal interview with a licensed attorney of the jurisdiction. They were surprised to find that the lawyer was really understanding, the interview itself was short, and in their experience, it was informal due to the pandemic—the interview was held on zoom. Their advice to me was that in the event I face an interview, to remain professional, provide honest and accurate information and just own up to the issue.
Not Addressing Issues in Addendums
If there is something noteworthy to explain, address it upfront. If you have had mishaps with academic misconduct in law school, or college—use the space given to elaborate. Other examples of when to write an addendum include: if you have to explain a law violation, academic disciplinary action, probation—to name a few.
Clear the Hurdle
This evaluation of your fitness to practice law is likely one of your last hurdles to clear. Do what it takes to do it right! You are on your way to adding “Esq” to your name. Good luck to you!