After years of hard work as an undergraduate and a law student, you're finally graduating and preparing to take the bar exam. Applying for bar admission and beginning your professional career is an exciting time. But for many, it can also be stressful and fraught with uncertainty. If you have any blemish on your academic or criminal record, you're wondering if a state bar will deny your admission, preventing you from fulfilling your professional goals.
Lawyers are looked to as pillars of the community, leading community philanthropic endeavors and becoming judges and public officials. As a result, each state's bar looks to protect the reputations of lawyers as a whole and implements rules for admission to the bar to ensure that each applicant is of good moral character and fit to practice law in the state. This determination is where each state bar's character and fitness application comes into play.
Admission to the Bar
Admission criteria in every state will differ slightly, but you can find the requirements, deadlines, and bar exam structure for your state on the National Conference of Board Examiners website. Typically, the admissions process will involve:
- Applying to take and taking the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam,
- Apply to take and taking your state's Bar Exam,
- Completing your state's Character and Fitness review process, and
- Admission or swearing into your state's Bar.
The Character and Fitness Application
Your state bar will usually require you to complete the “character and fitness” application as part of your application to sit for the bar exam. The character and fitness questionnaire will ask for personal information, education and disciplinary information, employment and licensing, driving and criminal records, civil judgments, credit and bankruptcy information, and businesses you may have owned.
- Personal Information
The application will ask for detailed personal information, including former residences, marriages, or court actions against you:
- Name, address, social security number, place of birth, and any names you've had in the past,
- Mailing address and residence,
- Any address where you've lived in the last ten years or since your 18th birthday, whichever is shortest,
- Marital status and support obligations, including your attorney of record for any divorce, separation, or annulment, and any actions brought against you for child custody or contempt, and
- Health conditions or behavior that may impact your ability to practice law.
- Education Information
The character and fitness application will request detailed information about post-high school education, military service, and any academic or personal misconduct allegations against you. These questions will include:
- Education, including any schools you've attended, including any post-high school education or previous law schools,
- Academic conduct, any academic or administrative action against you, including any suspension, probation, expulsion, or other action, even if the school later dismissed or dropped the charges,
- Academic dishonesty allegations such as cheating or other honor code violations, and
- Military service information, including any court-martial actions brought against you.
- Employment and Professional Licensing Information
The character and fitness application will ask for detailed information about past employment, bar applications, professional licenses, and any professional disciplinary actions you've faced, including:
- Employment information for the last ten year or since you were 18, including any gaps in employment, and a verifying reference such as a supervisor or boss for any employer no longer in business,
- Information about any job where you were fired or allowed to resign instead of being fired,
- Character references from professors, co-workers or employers, or neighbors and friends,
- Bar application information from any other jurisdictions where you applied to practice, including conditional or denied admissions and the reasons for those conditional or denied admissions,
- Other professional licenses you hold, including any charges, complaints, or grievances filed against you,
- Any other professional disciplinary matters that you faced,
- Any removal from office, either public or private, that you faced,
- Any charges of unauthorized practice of law that you or an employer have faced, and
- Whether you've ever had a security clearance revoked or denied.
- Driving and Criminal Records
The character and fitness application will also ask about driving and criminal records, including:
- Your official driving record from every state where you've held a license, including any traffic offenses,
- Legal proceedings against you, even those that the state or federal government did not prosecute,
- Legal proceedings as a juvenile,
- Whether you've ever been a party to any civil proceeding,
- Any other legal proceedings where you were a party, including failing to pay fines, violating ordinances, or past due parking violations,
- Whether you've ever been removed as a guardian or executor,
- Whether a court has ever held you in contempt,
- Whether a state has ever granted you immunity from prosecution, and
- And driver's license suspensions.
- Credit Information
For most character and fitness applications, you must provide the bar with a copy of your credit report and disclose any:
- Financial judgments against you,
- Unsatisfied judgments,
- Past due accounts,
- Bankruptcies, and
- Business Information
If you've ever owned a business or been a partner or director in a business, you will need to reveal:
- Business information,
- Bankruptcies or protection sought from creditors,
- Business litigation, and
- Tax information.
It's important to note that some states will allow you to omit criminal proceedings only if they were expunged or sealed under state law. This requirement varies from state to state.
Hire an Experienced Student Defense Attorney-Advisor
Each state's character and fitness process is quite thorough and designed to reveal any questionable conduct in virtually every aspect of your professional and educational history. Some law students discover that criminal history, disciplinary actions in school, including academic dishonestly allegations, and violations of the school honor code can place admission to the state bar in jeopardy.
If you're facing misconduct or disciplinary investigations in law school, you need to defend yourself effectively, and aggressively as needed. A finding of responsibility for misconduct in school or conviction in the court system can prevent you from practicing law after years of hard work and study. As a result, you need an experienced student discipline attorney-advisor.
Attorney-advisor Joseph D. Lento has handled academic dishonesty and other misconduct issues at thousands of schools across the country. He can help you protect your reputation and your professional future.