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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.