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Everything Law Students Need to Know about the Bar Exam Character and Fitness Requirement
by Teresa Lo
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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.
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.
What is the character and fitness requirements of the bar exam?
For anyone wanting to be a lawyer, they must pass the bar in whatever state they seek to practice in. While requirements for a license vary state-to-state, all jurisdictions require some sort of character and fitness component.
The character and fitness requirement is a background check that shows bar examiners you have the good moral character to practice law. According to ABA Journal, this process includes a lengthy questionnaire that asks candidates to reveal detailed personal information from their past. “They’re asked to disclose any arrests, academic misconduct charges, job losses, traffic tickets, bankruptcies and in some cases mental health histories.”
Additionally, bar examiners use candidates’ law school applications as part of the character and fitness assessment. They look for disclosed academic and job histories and explanations of blemishes on one’s past.
This process is an investigation into a person’s life, and it can seem invasive. According to the ABA Journal, this process “plays a significant role in bar admission. And often the most important thing a candidate can do is disclose.”
“Criminal history tends to be one of the most frequent issues for committees,” ethics counsel Keith Swisher told ABA Journal. “Other common issues include academic misconduct, excessive traffic tickets and delinquent debt.”
5 ways to pass the bar exam’s character and fitness requirement
The American Bar Association stated that people with red flags in their past still have a shot to become lawyers, but they need to show rehabilitation before they take the bar exam. By this time, if you haven’t been honest on your law school application or bar exam questionnaire, then you’re too late. But if you do have blemishes in your past, the ABA suggests you can overcome your mistakes during law school.
“The first step toward satisfying the Character and Fitness requirement is understanding what is expected of you. Whether you are a first-year student just walking through your law school’s front door or in your final year, about to head out that door, you need to be able to answer two questions: 1) Is there anything in my past (or my present) that might bring my character and fitness into question? 2) If my character is in question, what can I do now to begin to rehabilitate my reputation?” The American Bar Association stated.
According to the ABA, the four top areas of concern for most bar examiners are an existence of a criminal record, untreated mental illness and substance abuse, lack of candor, and financial problems.
Examples of things that would raise concerns include:
Any misdemeanor or felony charges
Excessive traffic citations
Lawsuits where you are the defendant
Failure to pay child support
A restraining order placed against you
Evidence of mental health problems
Evidence of substance abuse problems
Additionally, bar examiners look at your academic history, and they compare what you stated on your law school application to what they find when they perform a background check.
The ABA and other legal professionals recommend to anyone with potential red flags to do the following:
Be honest on all your application materials.
When applying to law schools, you should come clean on all possible negative aspects of your background and you should submit a resume that is 100% accurate. As mentioned above, state bars use your law school application as part of their character and fitness assessment, and they will perform background checks to see if anything you submitted was incorrect or if there were any discrepancies in what you disclosed.
Law school applications demand you disclose your criminal history; and when doing so, it is better to overshare than to leave something out. Any type of inaccurate representation may haunt you during the character and fitness evaluation, and rest assured, the state bar will uncover everything that there is to uncover about you, including—academic misconduct, job experience, criminal history, and more.
“Many grads are caught by surprise when they are called out by the bar for lack of candor. Bar officials will double-check everything their investigators find against your law school and bar applications, and if something significant is missing from either, you’ll find yourself in a world of trouble,” the ABA stated. “Do you have any doubts about the accuracy of your law school application? If you suspect that you omitted any required information, ask for a copy, and if you did omit something, notify your law school as soon as possible. If there are consequences—and there may or may not be—it’s better to face them now.”
Protect your online reputation.
Nowadays, everyone has some kind of social media presence. It’s almost stranger to be completely offline than to have a profile on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. But for potential attorneys, it’s important to protect your online image. That means don’t post offensive material, don’t engage or follow controversial people, and avoid feuding with others online.
Candidates should use their social media as a marketing tool to showcase a positive image. As part of the character and fitness portion, bar examiners will surely look you up, just as a future client would, and you want to make sure what people Google about you is professional.
During the character and fitness evaluation, investigators may use what they find about you online to fill in any gaps that they may uncover looking up public records or your confidential personal information.
Acknowledge your criminal past if you have one and show you have changed.
There are plenty of people who have been convicted of misdemeanors or felonies who move forward with their lives and become attorneys. Thus, if you have a record, don’t think that it’s something that is a deal breaker when it comes to getting your license. However, what is a deal breaker is trying to conceal this history, so make sure you disclose this on your law school application as well as your bar questionnaire. But just as important as your honesty is evidence that you have learned from your mistakes and will not repeat them.
For instance, show in your application materials that you have attempted to rehabilitate yourself. Whether this is through community service or changing your life circumstances, highlighting that you have distanced yourself from your past misdeeds will show the state bar officials that you have the moral character to become a lawyer.
“If you’ve had a brush with the law, it’s important that you do more than simply stick to the straight and narrow. You need to actively seek to make a difference in the world,” the ABA stated. “Volunteer whenever you can, whether it’s doing research for Legal Aid or serving in a soup kitchen. Not only will service make you feel better about yourself, but it may well provide you with positive references from respected members of the community.”
Get treated for any mental illnesses or substance abuse problems.
Most states ask about candidates’ history of mental illness and substance abuse. It is better to be honest with the state bar association about your history or current situation, and the bar will be open to your issues if you show you have sought treatment or are currently seeking treatment.
Some students with mental health issues such as depression or abuse problems such as alcoholism choose to not seek professional help to avoid a paper trail. These students may also opt to not disclose to the state bar their situation. However, this is harmful to the candidate who is not getting help and for their future clients. Remember, mental health or substance abuse problems can happen to anyone, and there is no shame in seeking treatment.
“In recent years bar examiners have come to accept mental illness as exactly that—illness. There’s an excellent chance that your state will not even inquire about mild depression, anxiety, and so on,” the ABA stated. “But without treatment, mild illnesses can become severe, and if you do suffer from an illness that may impair your ability to practice, the first question you’re likely to hear is, “Tell us about your treatment.” Remember that treatment is viewed as a plus, not a minus. Taking responsibility for your life evidences strength of character.”
Correct prior financial mistakes.
As part of the character and fitness requirement, your state bar will look into your finances to see if you are a financially responsible person. This means they’ll look at credit reports and tax returns, and they’ll do a background check to see if you were involved in any lawsuits or have ever failed to pay your debts.
Red flags include bankruptcies, failure to pay child support, failure to pay bills, bad checks, and failure to pay taxes, or have ever been the defendant of a small claims case. The reasoning into this inquiry is that an attorney with money problems may take advantage of a client in order to pay past debts or he or she may fail to perform other types of obligations.
The bar examiners understand that financial mistakes can happen, but what they are looking for is that you are actively trying to fix them and that they are in your past. That means that you are working on paying your debts and settling any litigation against you. They will be wary if these problems are a pattern and are not being taken care of.
The state bar examiners only want the best people to be given licenses to practice law, and they have no problems denying someone entry to the bar if they uncover dishonesty or a pattern of unscrupulous behavior. While everyone makes mistakes, they are looking for people who own up to and learn from their past. Committing crimes recently or having a repeated history of bad behavior can result in someone failing the character and fitness requirement.
The American Bar Association said that if you have any questions about your background and how that will affect your licensing, contact someone at your law school early.
“Whatever issues you face, don’t be afraid to get the help you need to make the right choices,” the ABA said. “Your law school is a great place to start. Share your concerns with the bar passage director or dean of students. They can help you find answers or direct you to those who can.”
Experts say that some criminal convictions such as sexual assault will never be forgiven, no matter how much time has passed or how candid you were on your applications. However, instances like that are rare, and they said that the majority of cases are never this severe. In fact, some people who are denied a license are denied because they had tried to cover up something smaller.
“The duty of candor is critical,” Swisher added. “Committees occasionally have used applicants’ arguable lack of candor, even relatively minor instances, as an excuse to deny applicants whose pasts bother the committee members. Conversely, complete candor tends to assure the committees that the applicants are trustworthy and fully accept responsibility for their past conduct.”
What do you think about the character and fitness requirements of the bar exam? Let us know in the comments below.
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