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Bar Application Stress: Character & Fitness Evaluation [Q+A]

Bar Application Stress: Character & Fitness Evaluation [Q+A]

Bar applicants often have concerns about the Character & Fitness evaluation. Don’t hesitate to seek the clarity you need as you begin your career as a lawyer.

When did you first realize your character would be reviewed before you could become a lawyer? You might have known long before you even decided to become a lawyer if you grew up with lawyers in your family or social circles, for example. But maybe you didn’t know anyone who had passed the bar until you got to law school — when you also heard about the Character and Fitness review for the first time. Sure it makes sense, but with the reputation lawyers have in the general public — who knew?!

Even some of the most morally upright applicants wonder whether a detail in their decades of life might be found inconsistent with the “degree of honesty, integrity, and discretion” required. Personally, I had an internal panic attack at UConn Law during my orientation in 2006 — the year firms stopped hiring 1L’s for summer positions, already feeling the impending 2008 recession — when one of the speakers instructed us to watch our spending because debt might be questioned in the Character and Fitness review.

Why didn’t I ask anyone? If I had reached out for help, I would have learned I’d be fine. I really thought my decision to assume almost $200,000 of debt (even with decent scholarships) showed poor judgment. Really, it did — but not enough to disqualify me from the bar for lacking Character and Fitness. Like so many people who don’t seek the help they need, I felt embarrassed by the source of my stress: My parents didn’t have enough income to save more than pocket change for my private undergrad tuition, let alone law school. I’m still not sure why I didn’t ask the Google — my best guess is that I allowed my concern to blend quickly into the hazy range of stress that accumulated throughout orientation and into the middle of my third year when I stopped going to classes vaguely sensing it was the best way to escape a reality I needed to avoid as I was just awakening to it. It wasn’t the best plan but it did work brilliantly.

If only I knew there was a place on the internet where law students could submit anonymous questions about their concerns, where a licensed professional would respond — Well, I hope I’d have used it like law students have used our website’s Q & A feature. We receive a range of questions from law students, including questions about Character and Fitness. We review a few below along with the answers provided by staff clinician Dr. Jeff Fortgang.

Importantly, the Massachusetts Bar Application asks no questions about mental health or substance use. Find more on nationwide Character and Fitness questions here. And more, lawyers and law students can schedule a free and confidential consultation with one of our organization’s clinicians to help deal with stress related to inquiries. Find more on scheduling here.

Also, quickly — if you’re preparing to take the bar exam on July 30 and 31, 2019 you can help improve your focus at our event on July 24th: Bar Exam Home-Stretch Stress Relief + Mindfulness Session. It’s free and confidential.

QUESTION ONE: Inconsistency between law school application and bar application.

First, do most C&F boards compare and contrast the law school application with the Bar application in its entirety to look for minor discrepancies, or does that tend to only occur if a red flag has already been raised in the C&F process? Second, if a C&F board does catch a minor exaggeration on the law school application (for example, in her prior work experience, the applicant claims that she served around 25 customers with a consulting firm when really it was more like 10 customers), but this exaggeration is not repeated on the Bar application, would this likely be sufficient to deny the applicant Character and Fitness certification? And finally, if an applicant has a period of self employment in her employment history, is it generally necessary to provide the C&F board with a reference that can attest to the entire period, even if the applicant did not have any one customer or employee with whom she worked for the entire period of self-employment? Or would a customer/client whom she worked with for just half of the period of self-employment generally suffice as a reference?

ANSWER: Prepare a truthful, thoughtful explanation regarding the first questions. Even if you don’t need to provide further explanation, it’ll be helpful to you to reinforce how important it is to be truthful at the outset of situations you’ll face in your career. A licensed clinician at LCL can help you consider your choices objectively to help you prepare your best response if questioned on Character and Fitness. Find more on scheduling here — You’ll likely want to meet with Barbara Bowe, since she has developed a bit of a focus in the area of Character and Fitness. Remaining anonymous, you can ask the Board of Bar Examiners how closely they examine consistency between applications as well, and the BBE would be your best source for answers to the final set of questions posed.

QUESTION TWO: Investigations contacting undergrad institutions.

During the character and fitness investigation process, do state boards of bar examiners typically contact applicants’ attended undergraduate institutions to confirm/inquire into academic disciplinary issues, e.g., academic probation for scholastic deficiency, without cause? Do they send forms to applicants’ undergraduate institutions, similar to dean’s certifications during the application process, to undergraduate institution officials to complete?

ANSWER: Our response here cannot be considered definitive — but our understanding is that applicants for bar admission should expect that bar admissions authorities will contact undergraduate institutions, in telephonic and/or written form, to verify and further investigate issues of discipline and honor code violations. In general, when dealing with Boards in Massachusetts, our distinct impression is that withholding relevant information is more of a concern that having had a problem, if that problem has been appropriately addressed.

QUESTION THREE: Expunged record for possession of drug paraphernalia.

I am applying for admission to the Massachusetts Bar. While in college, I was found with two small empty bags and taken into custody for possession of drug paraphernalia. I was released soon thereafter and appeared in court where I was given Pre-Trial Intervention. I passed the requisite community service requirements and my record was expunged, sealed, and closed. Do I need to disclose this in applying for the bar?

ANSWER: YES. We checked with the BBE. The Board of Bar Examiners is — of course — the direct source for the answer to this straightforward question. We understand why law students might hesitate to contact them directly, but you can ask them questions anonymously. You can also find answers to FAQ on Character and Fitness here.

QUESTION FOUR: Past arrests.

As a teenager, I was arrested (with peers) for breaking and entering (daytime), theft of a firearm (bb-gun), and malicious destruction of personal property. These charges were dismissed. I was never convicted of any crime. In addition, I was arrested for OUI 5 years later. Although I was never “convicted of a felony”, a recently assigned Massachusetts case disturbed me. In particular, these crimes may be considered as lacking “moral turpitude.” In the Matter of Harvey Prager (422 Mass. 86 (1996), a man’s application was denied due to a past history of acts constituting lack of moral character. I decided to review the Massachusetts bar application. It requires you to disclose any “charges” of felonies committed, as distinguished from “felony convictions.” I am very concerned that my arrest in 1981 may cause the Board of Bar Examiners to probe further into my past, and ask for a hearing. This may take time which I cannot afford, as a husband and father who has already taken a great financial hit in switching from a previous successful career. Or the Board may conduct a more thorough investigation in order to determine whether I was “rehabilitated.” My inquiries are as follows: [1] Must I report these “charges” since they took place when I was a juvenile? (I was an adult when I was arrested for drunk driving- so I realize that I must report this). Are the crimes of breaking and entering, theft of a bb-gun, and malicious destruction considered “felonies”? [2] If the Board sees this on my application, what is the likelihood that they will require a hearing or deeper investigation into my past? I’m not hiding anything, but concerned about the amount of time. (3) What is the most likely outcome?

ANSWER: Reporting likely won’t create an obstacle — but your time limits might be. Our best advice is for you to report your story in a candid manner, whether or not the term “felony” applies precisely. We have no reason to believe that this history will be much of an obstacle to admission. Prager’s reported offenses, we’re told, were of a much more serious nature. We can’t estimate the likelihood that they’ll require a hearing or deeper investigation — it’s certainly possible. As to that likelihood and the most likely outcome, the best person to answer would be an attorney who has repeatedly represented individuals before the Bar of Board Examiners, which you might be able to find the Mass Bar Association’s lawyer referral service. If your time limits are so restricting that you’re weighing it into a risk calculus to decide whether to be truthful in your bar application — you need to address that as early in your career as possible — you can find more from our Mass LOMAP services on time management and productivity.

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This post’s introduction was written by Rachel Casper, and answers were written by Jeff Fortgang, Phd.

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