Understanding the Bar Exam Character and Fitness Process

By Hemant Chauhan, Legal Coordinator, BARBRI International

If you are thinking about sitting a U.S. bar exam to qualify as an attorney in the United States with your current legal credentials or after obtaining your LL.M. degree from a U.S. law school, you should know that there is something that will test your character and fitness (beyond the bar exam itself). No, you won’t be required to prove you can run a mile without collapsing or debate your ability to exercise good judgment. However, you will be expected to show by clear and convincing evidence that you should be admitted to practise law in any U.S. jurisdiction.

The bar exam can differ greatly from state to state, but one common thread is that all applicants to the bar are required to complete an attorney application―as it is a privilege to practise law. For California, you will need to also complete a moral character application after sitting the bar exam and prior to becoming sworn in as a fully licensed U.S. attorney. These requirements are designed to protect the public from individuals whose past conduct demonstrates they may not be sound lawyers and to protect the legal profession’s reputation of integrity and trustworthiness.

When it comes to the character and fitness process, New York doesn’t begin the inquiry until after the bar exam is taken. Other states, such as California, begin the character and fitness screening when the applicant signs up to take the bar exam, usually at the end of law school.

The free BARBRI International Bar Exam Digest can give you all you need to know about every bar exam in every state. Here, we’ll focus on what to expect and how to best approach your character and fitness portion of the exam.

Candor is Critical

It is often said that honesty is the best policy, but I would emphasise that honesty is the only policy when it comes to answering the character and fitness questions. I’ve had attorneys within BARBRI tell me they’ve had to go so far as to list every credit card they’ve ever had and the current balance on each of those cards.

Suffice it to say that the character and fitness questionnaire can vary by jurisdiction, but the typical questionnaire will ask about:

  • Criminal and civil violations, including everything from convictions down to traffic tickets that led to fines or a suspension of your driver’s license
  • Academic attendance records
  • Exact addresses of where you have lived
  • Compliance with court orders
  • Mental health or substance abuse issues
  • Financial irregularities with regard to student loans, past due accounts, and more
  • Disciplinary actions during employment or in other professional situations

What you included in your law school application addendums will be scrutinised against what is found in your bar application and independent review. Nothing will send up a red flag to a character and fitness committee more than discovering you failed to disclose any past misconduct in your application.

If the character and fitness questionnaire raises concerns about your character, the bar admissions board may decide to conduct a more in-depth investigation. Usually, this is a face-to-face interview during which you will be required to produce evidence demonstrating current good moral character.

Don’t panic if you have something to report. If you are candid during the character and fitness process, can show that you have accepted responsibility for your actions, and have no immediate issues pending, then past missteps should not be a barrier to admission. If you have questions about whether or not to include something in your character and fitness application, the BARBRI International team can help guide you. You can also contact the bar examiners in the state in which you plan to sit the bar.

Project a Positive Presence

This probably goes without saying, but your social behavior—the image you convey online―is extremely important. Before entering the bar application process, or law school for that matter, make sure nothing you present publicly would call your character into question. Your social media presence should not raise any concerns about your character, professionalism, integrity, or overall fitness to join the legal community. To the extent there are any red flags, such as an ill-advised photograph or a misguided comment, now is the time to clean up your act.

The character and fitness process can be challenging but it doesn’t have to be a hurdle in qualifying as a U.S. attorney. By being open and honest on the character and fitness questionnaire, you can show that you are poised to become a respected and valuable member of the U.S. legal profession.