Everyone knows that in order to be an attorney, you have to pass the bar exam. Lots of studying. Hours of testing. All on items of knowledge that will quickly become irrelevant when you become a practicing attorney. It’s more of a rite of passage than a true test of whether you will be a good counselor and advocate. But you have to do it.
What you might not know is that passing the bar exam is just one part of the price of admission. Each applicant’s character and moral fitness is scrutinized, as well. Yes, I’m serious. Having good moral character is a requirement for being an attorney.
States require future attorneys to complete a time-consuming application, carefully documenting their personal history in a way that would reveal any red flags. In Illinois, you are required to inform the Supreme Court of every place you’ve lived in the past 10 years, as well as every job you’ve held over the last 10 years, provide six character references, plus two education references, explain your credit history, state whether you’ve ever been part of a court case, disclose your criminal history including traffic tickets and even any outstanding parking violations, and submit to a background investigation.
The majority of applicants pass. A handful get flagged, but after further investigation I think most end up being admitted. I’ve heard estimates that only about 1 in 500 is actually denied. But, it does happen.
Right now in California, Stephen Glass is having trouble passing the character and fitness part of the bar application process. In his past, he was a magazine writer who became infamous for fabricating most of his stories, making up quotes, etc. He was a serial liar. He claims he isn’t anymore. He first applied to the California bar in 2005 and was denied. He appealed, and the California Supreme Court is expected to make a final decision soon. Some say he is completely reformed and committed to leading an honest life. Others say it’s irresponsible to allow him to represent clients and argue cases in court, given his history of fabrication.
Remember Matthew Hale? He was the neo-nazi who was denied admission to the Illinois bar in the late 90s. His character application was flagged and eventually denied because of his racist views and his goal of spreading his views through his organization, the World Church of the Creator. He appealed and was denied again. A couple of days later, one of his friends and followers, Benjamin Smith, went on a shooting spree in Illinois, targeting minorities. Hale’s story didn’t end there. He was later sentenced to 40 years after hiring someone to kill Judge Joan Lefkow after she ruled against him and his white supremacist organization in a high-profile trademark case.
Sure, these are extreme cases (the latter much more so than the first), but my point is that they do screen attorneys. The application isn’t just a show. A lot of time and money is spent processing and investigating character applications. They actually send letters to all of your references asking about you, with the goal of protecting consumers and the courts from attorneys who will be dishonest and take advantage.
It’s not foolproof. There are enough stories about crooked attorneys to make that point. But it’s good to know that it’s not a free-for-all.
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