What is Character & Fitness?
If you plan to practice law after graduation, you will have to meet your state’s requirements to be licensed as an attorney. No matter where you are in law school, it is never too early to think about your application to the bar. If you are in your final year of school, the time to begin the application process is now. The purpose of the background investigation is not only to ensure you meet the requirements to practice law, but also to protect the public from unscrupulous persons.
Law School Character And Fitness
By Matt Gavin
Almost all of the questions I field about law school applications relate to personal statements, recommendations and resumes. However, it is critically important for applicants to treat the character and fitness questions of the law school application with an equal (or greater) amount of consideration.
These background questions, part of every law school application, are required because ultimately the law school is required to certify that each graduate is fit to practice law. That means the law school submits to the Bar Board of Examiners all disclosures you make on your law school application, along with any updates you submit during law school.
Like it or not, these questions are a part of your future professional licensure so use the tips below to make sure you are “fit” to be a lawyer.
1. Be Candid
It is always better to over-disclose in response to character and fitness questions. A law school may rescind an offer of admittance if it learns your responses are incomplete. Even after matriculation, failure to fully disclose can lead to a disciplinary board hearing, with consequences ranging from transcript notation to dismissal. (Disciplinary proceedings and the information that was withheld by the student are disclosed to the board of bar examiners). Finally, the answers provided on your law school application must match the responses you give on your bar application, or investigations will occur that could delay your admittance to the bar or even preclude you from legal practice altogether.
Just remember to be honest and forthcoming, as you would be as an attorney, and you will have a much easier time getting over your past.
2. Provide a Full Explanation
Typically, law schools ask for “yes or no” responses to the questions then an addendum with the details and explanation. This is your opportunity to present your side of the story for the Admissions Committee. The best way to respond is to (1) state the facts, including dates and times, parties involved, court dates and the outcome, then (2) a short paragraph or two describing the situation to help put it into context for the Admission Committee. Additional context could include your age and time since the incident occurred, the seriousness of the conduct, any evidence of rehabilitation and ownership of the issue, and any positive social contributions since the conduct occurred. And remember, fully explaining the circumstances helps for the Admissions Committee to learn not only more about the incident, but more about you. Also, remember to read the questions carefully, as I often see applicants fail to disclose incidents properly because of a lack of careful reading. Don’t let a careless mistake affect your long-term career goals.
3. Remember to Update
The character and fitness questions are an ongoing obligation for law applicants as well as law students. If a criminal incident takes place two weeks prior to your enrollment into a law program, then you must disclose this to the law admissions office. Similarly, if an arrest occurs during your third year of law school, then you must immediately inform the Dean of Students.
4. Final Thoughts
Character and fitness questions tend to leave law applicants scared, however if you realize you failed to make a full disclosure, don’t panic. Simply get in touch with your law admissions office and explain the situation in writing. Keep in mind that your full cooperation and honesty are important, no matter what stage your disclosure comes. The more open and forthcoming you are, the better it will serve you. While law schools and the board of bar examiners are the gatekeepers into the legal profession, they are not unreasonable and will gladly allow you to make your case.
Matt Gavin is the Assistant Dean of Admission for Suffolk Law School, and an alumnus of Suffolk Law School.
Bar Application Character And Fitness
Every jurisdiction investigates bar applicants. It is either done by the state bar association or in conjunction with the National Council of Bar Examiners. The investigation is a comprehensive inquiry into your background requiring you to disclose information about your personal and professional life. The information you provide will be supplemented by the investigation conducted by NCBEX or your bar.
The investigation is designed to ensure all applicants meet the requirements for character and fitness to practice law. Good moral character and fitness is vaguely defined as the ability to perform one’s professional work in an open, honest and forthright manner. Most jurisdictions have statutes establishing what constitutes good moral character and fitness.
Other Helpful Information
Admission to the Bar
The status of being a recovering addict or a person with a mental health disability is not grounds for denial of admission to the bar. However, if a student’s condition interferes with their ability to practice law, it would cause a red flag.
American Bar Association on Character & Fitness