For some people getting ready for the bar, their first concern is not the multiple-choice questions. Or the performance test section. Or even the essays. Rather, the thing that keeps them up at night is whether they will be prevented from practicing law because of a character blemish in their past.
If you are someone dreading the character and fitness portion of the bar application process, there are things you should do that will help you overcome the mistakes of your past.
1. Determine Whether There is Anything That Might Bring your Character and Fitness Into Question
As part of seeking admission to practice law, you must disclose certain background information about yourself so that your character and fitness may be assessed. Therefore, you need to determine whether there is anything you should have disclosed when you began law school or if anything has happened since then that you should disclose.
Examples of conduct that you should disclose include (but are not limited to):
- unlawful, academic, or employment misconduct,
- acts involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation,
- abuse of legal process,
- neglect of financial responsibilities,
- neglect of professional obligations,
- violation of a court order,
- evidence of mental or emotional instability,
- substance abuse,
- denial of admission to another jurisdiction on character and fitness grounds, and
- disciplinary action by a professional disciplinary agency.
Did you get a DUI or were caught underage drinking? Disclose! Did you fail to pay child support? Disclose! Did you file for bankruptcy? Disclose! Were you fired from a job? Disclose! Did you shoplift? Disclose! Do you see a pattern regarding the importance of owning up to your mistakes on your application? So, determine what you need to disclose and then, disclose!
2. Review Your Law School Application and Supplement It if It is Missing Necessary Disclosures
Once you determine what you should disclose, you need to make sure it matches your law school application. If you have any doubts about the accuracy of your law school application, you should ask for a copy to review it. If you discover you omitted something (whether intentionally or not), notify your law school as soon as possible and speak to the Dean of Students or Director of Bar Services about how to supplement your application. In many instances, it can be as simple as writing a letter to the Dean of the Law School noting the change that needs to be made. If this intimidates you, recognize that you are not the only law student who has had to make this kind of change. Further, supplementing your application is substantially less painful than being denied an ability to practice law. Finally, remember that you have an ongoing obligation to report incidents that occur after you are admitted to law school.
3. Submit Honest Disclosures to the Board
The Board of Examiners does not look to punish prospective practitioners. They understand that people have blemishes in their past. But you have to disclose these blemishes so that the Board can confirm you have the character and fitness necessary to handle people’s legal issues.
Having an underage drinking incident you are embarrassed about on your record should not prevent you from practicing law. However, if you fail to disclose the incident on your application, that is a huge issue. Why? Because the underage drinking is an issue that occurred in the past but your failure to disclose the incident is an issue that is occurring in the present.
Be hyper-vigilant about your application, and remember that it is always a good idea to disclosure something if you are in doubt. It is tragic how often people slip up and fail to disclose something that a Board of Examiners later finds out about.
Candor, honesty, and integrity are integral to the legal profession. Do not tell half-truths about a situation you were involved in and do not fail to disclose something hoping it will never be discovered. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up to be denied from the practice of law.
4. Establish Your Rehabilitation
The Board will consider evidence of your rehabilitation when determining if you are fit to practice law, so be proactive. Evidence of your rehabilitation may include (but is not limited to):
- the amount of time that has passed since the incident,
- the absence of subsequent incidents,
- honesty, remorsefulness, and acceptance of responsibility regarding the incident,
- a lack of malice or ill will towards anyone who reported the incident,
- recommendations from people aware of the misconduct for your admission,
- positive action, such as civic service,
- sufficient time for treatment (if substance abuse is involved), and
- evidence of financial responsibility (if neglect of financial responsibilities is at issue).
The more serious the misconduct, the more evidence you will need to present to show your rehabilitation. As part of your application, you should be able to include a personal statement in which you can speak to any of these issues.
At the end of the day, remember that the Board is not the enemy. They are tasked with the important job of making sure that you are fit to practice law. This is for your benefit and for the benefit of your future clients. Work with the Board, because they are not trying to work against you. If you have any questions, you can reach out to the Board or your Dean of Students or Director of Bar Services.
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