Should I Even Apply to Law School?

I will frequently get asked by individuals should I even apply to law school? Sometimes they express their desire to become a lawyer, but l inform me of their past criminal, sometimes juvenile issues, problems with their finances, civil lawsuits, drinking related and also academic problems. Often someone has a combination of all of these issues in addition to other matters. They will tell me that they are concerned to spend the time, money, or energy in law school knowing that they could be denied Bar Admission to the State of their choice.

These are fair questions. Law School is challenging and requires commitment and focus. The cost of a legal education is high. I always try to gauge the prospective students’ desire and seriousness to practice law. I inform them that it will be harder for them to pass Character and Fitness with background issues. Like any good lawyer, I never guarantee any results but only offer my professional judgment.

Not only is Law School challenging, but the Bar Exam is as well. In addition to taking and passing a Bar exam required, all states mandate that an applicant must have the requisite Character and Fitness in order to gain admittance.

The Character and Fitness process is extremely detailed. A Bar Investigator/processor will strictly investigate and scrutinize an applicant’s file. The Processor goes beyond just verifying information. They will perform a detailed analysis to discover inconsistencies in the file and discover undisclosed information about the applicant. The Bar Investigator also requests character witnesses and other witnesses to provide relevant information regarding the applicant to determine their character and fitness to practice law.

I have helped countless students through the years with these types of issues. As I tell someone asking me whether they should even apply to law school, it depends on your passion and commitment. You will have obstacles along the way, but it is not impossible as long as it done the right way.

The Importance of Disclosure

The practice of law is a privilege.  As lawyers, we are held to high standards.  In order to become a lawyer, an applicant must meet strict standards and qualifications.  Attorneys maintain a great responsibility to uphold the law, act ethically, and serve their clients selflessly.  The Character and Fitness process helps the State Board understand an applicant’s academic qualifications and abilities, the applicant’s  professionalism, trustworthiness, ethics, and overall reliability.  An applicant must fulfill challenging educational requirements, satisfactorily complete extensive examinations on academic qualifications and professional responsibility, and, most importantly, successfully complete Character and Fitness.  The Character and Fitness requirements provide the Board with a better understanding of who the applicant is as a person, and whether an applicant will conduct themselves appropriately abiding by the high standards expected of attorneys.  These high standards apply both to an attorney’s professional and personal life.

An applicant’s duty to disclose to both the law school and the Board of Admissions to the Bar is the most important obligation set forth in the application process, and is imperative to the Board’s ability to recommend applicants for licensure.  A bar applicant’s duty to disclose extends from issues relating to termination or suspension from school or work to matters regarding the applicant’s financial, criminal, and driving history.  The duty to disclose this range of topics satisfies several crucial Character and Fitness requirements in the application process.  First, the duty to disclose these issues provides the Board with much needed details regarding the applicant’s history.  Second, the very act of disclosure  demonstrates the core principles essential to the Character and Fitness eligibility requirements.  Lastly, the duty to disclose forces the applicant to truly reflect on their prior bad decisions and self-reflect.

In most states, the applicant has  the burden to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he or she has the requisite character and fitness for admission to practice law.  In Illinois, like many other states he essential eligibility requirements include

“(1) the ability to learn, to recall what has been learned, to reason, and to analyze; (2) the ability to communicate clearly and logically with clients, attorneys, courts, and others; (3) the ability to exercise good judgment in conducting one’s professional business; (4) the ability to conduct oneself with a high degree of honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness in all professional relationships and with respect to all legal obligations; (5) the ability to conduct oneself with respect for and in accordance with the law and the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct; (6) the ability to avoid acts that exhibit disregard for the health, safety, and welfare of others; (7) the ability to conduct oneself diligently and reliably in fulfilling all obligations to clients, attorneys, courts, creditors, and others; (8) the ability to use honesty and good judgment in financial dealings on behalf of oneself, clients, and others; (9) the ability to comply with deadlines and time constraints; and (10) the ability to conduct oneself properly and in a manner that engenders respect for the law and the profession.”[1]

The duty to disclose previous misconduct is necessary to an applicant proving that they possess these essential eligibility requirements.  The essential eligibility questions in the application, in which the duty to disclose applies, helps the Board discover any prior misconduct which may call into question an applicant’s character and fitness.  This misconduct includes

“(a) unlawful conduct; (b) academic misconduct; (c) making false statements, including omissions; (d) misconduct in employment; (e) acts involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation; (f) abuse of legal process; (g) neglect of financial responsibilities; (h) neglect of professional obligations; (i) violation of an order of the court; (j) evidence of conduct indicating instability; (k) denial of admission to the bar in another jurisdiction on character and fitness grounds; (l) disciplinary action by a lawyer disciplinary agency or other professional disciplinary agency of any jurisdiction; (m) acts constituting the unauthorized practice of law; and (n) failure to comply with the continuing duty of full disclosure to the Board and the Committees subsequent to the date of application.”[2]

The importance of the duty to disclose is clear. Without the duty to disclose, it would be extremely difficult to determine if an applicant possesses the requisite character and fitness to practice law.  This duty is crucial in the application process for both the Board in determining if an applicant is prepared for the privilege of practicing law, and for the applicant in preparing him or herself for licensure.

Each State Board of Admissions has the immense responsibility to determine whether an applicant truly possesses the requisite moral qualifications required for the practice of law.  Both the law school and the Board of Admissions have a right to know and understand the applicant that they are admitting into school or to practice law.  Any omissions or false statements on applications are simply unacceptable.  The legal community relies upon the Board of Admissions to ensure that the community and the clients in which it serves are protected from individuals who do not possess the requisite character and fitness to practice law.  Attorneys are held to such high standards because they must be honest, trustworthy, and reliable in handling clients’ cases and finances.  Clients put their trust in attorneys at some of the most important and difficult times in their lives.  Clients, other attorneys, and judges deserve to be certain and confident that each attorney meets these high standards.  The law school and Board are entitled to the information regarding financial and criminal history because those details help with determining an applicant’s character and their fitness.

[1] Rules of Procedure for the Board of Admissions to the Bar and the Committees on Character and Fitness of the Illinois Supreme Court R. 6.3.

[2] Rules of Procedure for the Board of Admissions to the Bar and the Committees on Character and Fitness of the Illinois Supreme Court R. 6.4.

Bar Application: Where do I begin?

The process of filing out your bar application is daunting. Even if you are young and have no background issues, an applicant often asks how do I start? I recommend start with the easy questions. Get these out of the way first and wait on handling the serious Character and Fitness questions until later. Some questions are harder especially if you have lived many places or worked many jobs. It is always best to be as organized as possible. Timelines help in order to refresh your recollection. Go back over dates, the jobs you had, and make sure you have up to date contact information for your previous employers. State Bar Investigators will send documentation to your past employers and they rely upon the information that you provide to be accurate.

You will also need to provide the bar with the names and contact information of Character Witnesses on your behalf. These are individuals who will vouch for your integrity, character, and fitness. State Bar Investigators will likely send forms to these individuals. These forms can contain questions about your background, criminal history, financial history, and your fitness. It is imperative that you take the time to thoroughly think who will take the time to fill out these forms timely, efficiently and honestly.

You should also make sure to obtain a copy of your law school application. You should review your law school application because it may need to be amended but this is a whole different subject all together!

Additionally, if you have either civil or criminal matters in your past, you should request copies of all court documents. You may need to contact the Clerk’s office in that particular jurisdiction to obtain the material or contact your previous lawyer if you retained one. If you have those records in your possession, now is the time to locate this paperwork. It is also helpful to obtain all relevant docket sheets. For a criminal case, I also recommend trying to obtain any relevant police reports, sentencing, or probationary documents.

In addition, it is helpful to obtain certified copies of your driving records.

Now that you have this documentation, it is time to get organized and start filling out your application. This process takes time and requires attention. If you have matters in your past or need to help with character fitness issues, hiring a professional well versed in this area of the law may be beneficial to you and your future. The bar application takes time and patience. It is imperative that you do it carefully and accurately.

Conditional Admission due to Substance Abuse Issues

There is no question that people make mistakes, that you can learn from these mistakes, overcome your past, and ultimately lead both an enriching and productive professional and personal life.   Lets address Conditional Admission due to Substance Abuse Issues.

During my many years of  private practice after leaving the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, I have represented many law students in bar admission matters who have or had substance abuse issues.  These applicants face many obstacles to become a lawyer, but some can ultimately accomplish this goal.

Generally, the most important component of the Bar Admission process is to fully and truthfully disclose your background. This article focuses on Illinois’ Bar process for Conditional Admission, but other states have similar procedures and rules.  According to the Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements of 2020 published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners and the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education Admission to the Bar, 28 States have conditional admission. (including Florida, New Jersey, Indiana, Connecticut, Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan to name a few).

In all states, the Committee on Character and Fitness scrutinizes an applicant’s criminal history.  Other issues which generally warrant further review by a State’s Character and Fitness include, but are not limited to, academic disciplinary matters, failure to disclose relevant information, lack of truthfulness in college and law school applications, credit problems, traffic issues, and any combination of these referenced concerns. Character and Fitness proceedings are generally private and confidential.

Since 2007 in Illinois, an applicant may receive Conditional Admission to the bar. Until 2007, an applicant seeking admission to the Illinois Bar was either approved or denied. No middle ground existed.  Rule 701 (a) of the Supreme Court Of Illinois Rules on Admission and Discipline provides: “Subject to the requirements contained in these rules, persons may be admitted or conditionally admitted  (emphasis added) to practice law in this State by the Supreme Court if they are at least 21 years of age, of good moral character and general fitness to practice law, and have satisfactorily completed examinations on academic qualification and professional responsibility as prescribed by the Board of Admissions to the Bar or have been licensed to practice law in another jurisdiction and have met the requirements of Rule 705.  Other states with conditional admission have similar guidelines.

Rule 7 of the Illinois Rules of Procedure for the Board of Admissions to the Bar and Committees on Character and Fitness for the State of Illinois specifically details the circumstances which allow for the conditional admittance of a law student to the Illinois Bar. The Rule specifically states that conditional admission is neither to be used as a method of achieving fitness nor as a method of monitoring the behavior of all applications who have rehabilitated themselves from misconduct or unfitness. See Rule 7.2.  Conditional admission may be employed only when an applicant has been engaged in a sustained and effective course of treatment or remediation for a period of time sufficient to demonstrate his or her commitment and progress but not yet sufficient to render unlikely a recurrence of the misconduct or unfitness.  See Rule 7.3.

In order to be eligible for conditional admission, an applicant must still satisfy all the requirements for full admission to the bar and possess the requisite good moral character and fitness, except that he or she is engaged in a sustained and effective course of treatment for or remediation of a) substance abuse or dependence; b) a diagnosed mental or physical impairment that, should it reoccur would likely impair the applicant’s ability to practice law or pose a threat to the public; or c) neglect of financial affairs, that previously rendered him or her unfit for admission to the bar, and the applicant has been engaged in such course of treatment or remediation  for no fewer than 6 continuous months for matters relating to substance abuse, dependence, or mental or physical impairment, and no fewer than 3 continuous months if the subject of remediation is neglect of financial affairs.   See Rule 7.3.

The Supreme Court of Illinois has the final authority to review the recommendation, report, and Consent Agreement for Conditional Admission. Rule 7.11.  Unless the Court orders otherwise, the period of conditional admission shall not exceed 24 months. Rule 7.9.  If the Court determines that the applicant qualifies for Conditional Admission, the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission monitors compliance.  See Rule 7.12.   The Administrator of the ARDC may take such action as is necessary to monitor compliance with the terms of the Consent Agreement. See Rule 7.12.

Due to Confidentiality requirements, statistics concerning the implementation of conditional admission are difficult to obtain.  However,   there is no doubt that Conditional Admission has been successfully implemented.  Law students with substance abuse and/or mental heath issues who qualify under the applicable Rules, who might not otherwise be admitted prior to 2007, can now fully disclose their addiction and treatment without fear of denial of their law license.

Conditional Admission is premised on the belief that someone can have a problem, make mistakes, seek help, and ultimately change their life. A recovered addict is not incapable of being fit to practice law, in fact, quite the opposite.