As you may already know, likely from law school orientation, the Moral Character and Fitness process assesses good moral character and fitness for the practice of law. The screening process rewards timeliness, accuracy, and honesty.
If “today” seems too soon, you may be surprised by the simple yet proactive steps you can take to be a timely applicant. Getting ahead of what you need to do will put you in the best position to successfully complete this portion as incomplete or inaccurate responses will delay your application.
Below are three (3) steps you can take to get started and that your future self will thank you for!
1. Familiarize yourself with the state-specific rules
Every jurisdiction evaluates the character and fitness of applicants for admission, and each state has its own rules which may differ from state to state (i.e., varying deadlines, fees and processing timelines). As you may have already experienced, some states require bar exam applicants to be approved for character and fitness prior to sitting for the exam while others evaluate after bar exam passage.
You can obtain and review a sample Character and Fitness application to familiarize with the kind of information you will need to provide. You can start by reviewing the NCBE sample, but be sure to keep in mind it is a general standard, and not necessarily what your jurisdiction’s application will look like.
To verify application instructions and deadline, contact the jurisdiction directly and/or visit the website. To find contact information on jurisdictions, visit the NCBE Character & Fitness page. Additionally, you can check out this 2021 Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements by the ABA and NCBE for more information.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Inquiries:
You can view this ABA resource to learn about recent state reform on the use of substances and mental health questions. Recently many states including New York, Virginia, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Virginia, and Washington have implemented similar bans on applicant disclosure on mental health conditions and treatment. These changes are indicative of changes we may see in the future, as additional states may also follow suit.
Understanding the disclosures required for your jurisdiction can help you stay encouraged and not dissuaded from getting the help you may need. For individualized and confidential advice about these disclosures, reach out to your state bar association’s Lawyer Assistance Program.
2. Start identifying potential references
Similar to the job application process, it is important to communicate with your potential references, so they are aware that you are starting the Character and Fitness process. Specifically, it’s helpful to make your reference(s) aware that they may be contacted. The NCBE or jurisdiction may contact your references in order to collect relevant information. Additionally, they may also reach out to anyone identified in your application including schools, employers, and courts.
Consider how many references you will need, who you want to ask to be a reference and whether they meet the requirements. A sample NCBE reference question asks for a minimum of six (6) references that have known the applicant for at least five (5) years which may exclude relatives and your employer references.
Since the NCBE seeks current contact information for each reference, you will want to ask potential reference(s) if they will be available to check their email, phone, and mail in case they are contacted. The process requires a prompt response to any inquiries from NCBE in order to prevent delays.
Luckily, some of the references you have in mind (i.e., your favorite Civ Pro professor) may already be familiar with the process and will know that they need to be responsive. On the other hand, you may need to reconsider whether you are going to ask your former college roommate that is planning a trip abroad and is generally hard to reach.
3. Start identifying documents
Anticipate which documents you will need early on because you may need to do some digging. Hopefully by reading through the sample Character and Fitness Application, you would have already flagged some of the documents you may need. For example, if you ever had any history of professional discipline, then the application may require you to upload a copy of the associated action or complaint.
It is important to note that some supporting documents are optional while others are required. Documents that are generally required deal with sanctions or disqualification, military service, civil, criminal or administrative action, alcohol or drug related traffic violations and bankruptcy.
As a tip – the application page may include a completion checklist to ensure you know what your application is missing with respect to documentation.
By taking some of these steps today, you can take charge of part of the overall application process. Before you know it, you will be closer to the finish line of becoming a licensed attorney.