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Everything Law Students Need to Know about the Bar Exam Character and Fitness Requirement

published March 05, 2018

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Summary: Passing the bar exam is a difficult task, but what some people don’t consider is what happens next. After proving their competence by passing a series of tests about their knowledge, candidates are then evaluated on their character.

 
Everything Law Students Need to know about the Bar Exam Character and Fitness Requirement
 
  • Everyone remotely connected with the law school or the practice of law is familiar with the bar exam.
  • But there is one component of the exam that is often not mentioned in this long arduous test.
  • That is the character and fitness requirement, which examines a person’s character to practice law.
  • Keep reading to find out what the character and fitness requirement of the bar exam is and how it can affect your overall bar exam results.


Passing the bar exam is a difficult task, but what some people don’t consider is what happens next. After proving their competence by passing a series of tests about their knowledge, candidates are then evaluated on their character. While many make it past this hurdle, some fail; but could that failure have been prevented?

In most circumstances, yes, it could have.

Bar examiners know that there is a chance that aspiring attorneys have had lapses in judgment, ranging from being suspended from school to something more serious like serving time in prison. For any wannabe attorney who has less than a squeaky-clean background, the way to pass the character and fitness requirement is to show that those actions are in the past and that they have made moves to change. And these efforts need to be done before and during law school, not after.

Frequently Asked Questions
 

What Is The Character And Fitness Bar Exam?


Each state has its own admissions process, including its own Character and Fitness process, before you can practice law there. Depending on your state, this application may have to be submitted before taking the bar exam, or it may need to be submitted afterward. If you are applying for a state, make sure you know what the policy is in that state.

To be eligible to practice law, applicants must complete the Character and Fitness application.

For the Character and Fitness process, here are a few tips:
 

Candor is Critical


When answering Character and Fitness questions, honesty is the only policy that matters. The key is candor.

In a Character and Fitness application, a variety of information can be requested, but primarily:
 
  • Civil and criminal violations, from convictions to traffic tickets that lead to fines or suspension of licenses.
  • Information about academics, including attendance records.
  • Addresses of where you have lived.
  • Observance of court orders.
  • Problems with mental health or substance abuse.
  • Financial history, including past due accounts, irregularities relating to student loans, etc.
  • A history of employment, including any disciplinary actions taken in the workplace or elsewhere.

Reports should not be panicked. You can show you have taken responsibility for your actions by being candid during the character and fitness process. As a result, you demonstrate that you do not have any issues pending.

Contact the bar examiner in the state where you plan to take the bar exam if you have other questions about the character and fitness application.
 

Be Consistent


We will compare the information you included in your law school applications and independent review with the information found on your bar application. An application that fails to disclose any past misconduct will raise a red flag for the Character and Fitness Committee.

A more in-depth investigation may be conducted if concerns about your character are raised during the Character and Fitness process. Generally, this is an in-person interview during which you must provide evidence of your current moral character.
 

Project a Positive Presence


Online behavior and image play an extremely important role in your social life. Ensure anything you present publicly would question your character before entering the bar application process, or law school.

There should be no question as to your character, professionalism, integrity, or overall fitness for the legal profession based on your social media presence. Remove any red flags that might cause concern.
 

Give Yourself Time


You should allow yourself enough time to gather the required information for the Character and Fitness process.
 

What Are The Character And Fitness Interviews?


The Character and Fitness Committee evaluates an Applicant's file before a final decision is made by the Board of Law Examiners ("Board"). An interview can take place at any stage of the application process before a final decision is made.

Interviews are conducted to learn more about an Applicant's fitness to practice law.

Any additional information submitted to the Board should be reviewed by the applicant. Applicants should ensure that the information requested by the Board has been provided. Applicants should be prepared to discuss discrepancies with the Board. In case the Applicant has any questions regarding the interview or outstanding documents, the Applicant should contact the Board office. Dress like you would for a court appearance and plan to arrive 15 minutes early for the interview.
 

What Is Character And Fitness Law School?


"Are you currently under indictment for a felony, or did you ever receive a conviction, probation, deferred adjudication, or diversion program for a felony? Did you ever receive a criminal citation or arrest warrant?"

OR

"Are you a graduate/professional student who has been disciplined, placed on academic probation, or dismissed from any college, university, or school, or is any disciplinary action pending or anticipated against you?"

In most applications, those prompts appear in the Character & Fitness section. Law school candidates with the best credentials may still be terrified of them. Did you get a speeding ticket in high school? Do fines for public drinking count? Is it important if I ignore that thing from college and answer "no"?

The answers to law school applications must be endorsed as "true and complete". False, misleading, or incomplete answers may result in sanctions, such as suspension, expulsion, or any other form of punishment determined by the university. Why does it matter? The applications are not signed under penalty of perjury. Who could find out that you lied about a minor crime that happened years ago, and what could possibly happen if you did?

It depends on the situation. It depends on how you plan to spend your life, how you intend to practice law, and with what companies and organizations you hope to work. Despite your admission to law school, the answer can affect you for the rest of your life.

For the best results when it comes to answering disclosure questions, be sure to follow these five tips.
 

1. READ THE FINE PRINT


Application mistakes include failing to read the entire question or assuming "Oh, I know what they want here." Questions are different in each application. It is not a requirement to disclose criminal convictions, sentences, or deferred adjudications. If you were convicted of drinking in public and the charges were dismissed when you paid the fine, you need not disclose that on an application that does not request this information.

These broad questions usually lead to the disclosure of even the most mundane and insignificant activities (failing to signal while changing lanes, driving with a suspended license, complaining about noise, etc.). Be forthright and don't guess. Consider consulting with someone who can explain the meaning of the language and how to classify your incident if you aren't sure what you're supposed to disclose.
 

2. DO YOUR RESEARCH


Criminal records are rarely a legitimate concern for most applicants. Most of the time, minor incidents do not prompt admissions committees to pay much attention to them. Admissions committees usually do not consider traffic violations (other than anything related to driving under the influence) or noise/party violations as significant issues. Even though they are small potatoes, you may still be required to disclose them.

It is worth your time to get any documentation you can about your incident — before you have to face a state bar — regardless of the seriousness of the offense. In the event you apply to a state bar, having a copy of your ticket, criminal docket, or complaint will prove extremely helpful, as these documents are often required as part of your bar application. Under federal law, you are entitled to see what's in your official student file in a disciplinary case at college.

When you have everything relating to the incident in your possession, read it all to discern what happened and what it should be called. Check whether the charge is "civil" or "criminal." Calculate whether you "pled guilty," received a "deferred adjudication" (also known as a "nolo contendere" plea), or just had to pay a fine without making an admission.

Do not be afraid to ask a relative or friend who practices criminal law for help if you are not sure of the terminology to use. To make sure your case is handled correctly, you shouldn't hesitate to speak to a criminal attorney. Consultations up front can save a great deal of aggravation in the future. Before attempting to explain the work on a law school application, make sure you know what you did and what it's called.

 You should contact your state bar if you have been convicted or charged with something more serious - such as operating under the influence, indecent exposure, assault and battery, domestic violence, larceny, etc. Criminal history is not usually disqualifying for admission to the bar, but it is worth asking before you spend the money and time applying to law school. Consult an attorney once you have collected the relevant paperwork as well.

The trickiest term in a disciplinary context is usually "disciplinary action". Hence, it's a good idea to see what's in your file (if you don't know) since disciplinary measures are typical ways in which the school punishes you for transgressions. If, for example, a professor lowered a grade due to plagiarism, "disciplinary action" would still have taken place even if there was nothing in your official file.
 

3. SELF-REFLECTION IS NOT ALWAYS NECESSARY WHEN DISCLOSURE IS MADE


An addendum or additional essay detailing the details and circumstances of the incident is almost always required for disclosure. Applicants tend to go overboard in these addenda most often.

There is less need to provide details for minor and distant incidents. As an 11-year-old, if you stole a candy bar from a general store and were sentenced to community service, you should not go into too much detail. You are not a juvenile delinquent.

You should take a little more time to explain the incident if it happened within the last couple of years or if it was more serious. Include the details of the incident, such as the time and place, whether you were charged, arrested, or cited, and the outcome.

You can come off defensive and dishonest if you go overboard. It is important that you not defame the police or single out you as the only one who got caught or to present it in the form of a diatribe against unlawful police practices or unreasonable RAs.

The longer and more elaborate your essay is, the more likely the admissions committee will read it. Your answer should not take center stage in your application. Whenever you feel the need to elaborate, make sure to use as few words as possible and focus on explaining your actions, rather than defending them.
 

4. DO NOT BELIEVE THE HYPE


It is unclear how criminal records are maintained and disclosed in the criminal justice system. Due to misinformation, many applicants with some past incidents answer "no" on one of the disclosure questions. It may not be accurate when someone says that an incident from your past has been sealed or expunged such as a parent, sibling, police officer, or even an attorney. Do not rely on your law school application (or state bar application) to reveal all aspects of your life. Do the work upfront and know what will and will not show.

Under certain circumstances, such as juvenile criminal cases, some states automatically seal records. A criminal record may need to be sealed or expunged through a formal procedure. Sealing or expunging a criminal record may not be legal in some states. The complete criminal background check for future use by prosecutors and judges includes even "sealed" criminal cases.

The majority of states allow you to request or apply in person for a copy of your criminal record (adult and juvenile). If you received "advice" 10 years ago, it may not apply today or it may be incorrect altogether. Be cautious of assuming your advisor advised you correctly since incorrect disclosure can have severe consequences.
 

5. IT IS USUALLY ABOUT THE COVERUP


Minor violations of the law in an applicant's past usually will not negatively impact his admission prospects. A fine or community service is usually imposed on criminal offenses and driving infractions. In cases where there is a felony or dishonesty involved (fraud, larceny, financial crimes), applicants should discuss disclosure strategies with a law school advisor and their state bar. In addition, narcotics offenses may affect admissibility for financial aid if disclosed during the application process.

School disciplinary incidents follow the same pattern. Any violation of academic integrity including plagiarism or abuse of other people, including harassment and threats, would be regarded as a large potato. School-related matters, like assault, can sometimes cross over into criminal cases.

All things considered, you should approach the disclosure question from the perspective of the long-term consequences of your answer. Your law school application and your bar materials are required by many state bar associations. Why?

Almost all states conduct a character and fitness test, which uses, among other things, your written paperwork (often including your law school application) in order to determine whether you are a trustworthy member of the profession. Perjury is often used in signing these state bar materials, and almost always includes a waiver authorizing the state bar association to check your criminal and disciplinary records.

Inconsistencies, intentional misrepresentations, and omissions are very unfavorable to state bar associations.

Still, the problems do not end there. An intentional misrepresentation may result in a board of bar examiners hearing, including an interview. Attorney's fees are often associated with the consultations of applicants before hearings.

The situation may worsen. Law schools, especially those in a state, have close relationships with state bar associations. There is no barrier between the bar association and an applicant's law school if an intentional misrepresentation is found. The part of your law school application you filled out three years ago that said failure to disclose may result in "...any other form of punishment deemed necessary by the university?" That can include rescinding your degree.

Suppose that a state bar does not learn about an incident on your criminal record that you have not reported to them. You pass the character and fitness test. Congratulations! The omission is not yet known to you, since you are an attorney.

Most of the time, your past will not be an issue for admission, but lying or omitting information today can negatively affect your applications tomorrow.
 

How Long Are Pennsylvania’s Character And Fitness?


The Board of Law Examiners will investigate and make a determination about an applicant's character and fitness for admission to the bar before it issues a certificate for admission to the bar. Character and fitness screenings are primarily intended to protect the public.

To aid the Board in its investigation, applicants must provide a complete application and background information. Applicants must demonstrate he/she has the required character and fitness to be admitted. An applicant must provide documentation for any incidents or prior conduct found to be incompatible with an attorney's job responsibilities. Depending on the information on the application, the Board may contact an applicant's employers, colleges and law schools, hospitals, medical providers, police agencies, and credit agencies for verification or additional information.

After the applicant passes the bar exam, the Board staff determines whether the applicant is character and fit. Depending on the issue being investigated, the amount of information involved, outside cooperation, and other factors, the character and fitness review process can take from a few weeks to over a year.
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