MORAL CHARACTER APPLICATION/ADMISSION
In addition to representing attorneys in disciplinary matters, many of the members of ADDC assist Bar applicants, whether it be a law student or J.D. or an attorney licensed in another state, trying to establish good moral character.
The Initial Moral Character Application
Unlike attorney disciplinary proceedings where the burden is on the State Bar to prove misconduct, in moral character determinations for admission, the burden is on the applicant to establish that he or she possesses current good character for admission to practice law. The standards for establishing good moral character are not black and white. While certain events on one’s academic, employment, criminal, civil, or financial record can delay or be hurdles for admission, or result in denial of admission altogether, there is no set guideline as to what will constitute an undoubted denial of admission. The facts and circumstances of each incident are taken into account, and the applicant’s character is determined based on the totality of the moral character application.
Many times, an applicant is denied or delayed admission not because of the substantive events that occurred in the applicant’s history, but because of the way those incidents are presented, or not presented, to the State Bar.
Common mistakes that applicants make in submitting their moral character application include: withholding requested information because they think disclosure would hurt their chances of admission and that the State Bar will not find out; failing to disclose information because the applicant misinterprets a question and incorrectly thinks it does not apply to his or her situation; providing inconsistent responses on the application or inconsistent information between their law school and moral character application; volunteering detrimental information on the application that is not required, which opens the door for the State Bar to further question the applicant’s character; aggravating the underlying situation by offering a poor or inadequate explanation; and listening to bad advice from family, friends, or unqualified attorneys as to how to complete the moral character application, respond to inquiries from the State Bar, or navigate through the admissions process. Hiring counsel who regularly deal with the State Bar and specialize in admission matters can help applicants avoid these types of mistakes.
Above all, the most significant factor is an applicant’s candor. An applicant needs to disclose everything, but when in doubt if disclosure is necessary, err on the side complete disclosure. Using the services of an attorney who practices in this field enables applicants to present even bad evidence in a favorable light.
Who Handles the Moral Character Application
One of the branches of the California State Bar is the Committee of Bar Examiners, which includes the Office of Admissions and the Subcommittee on Moral Character Determination. When a moral character application is submitted, it begins in the Office of Admissions. Once the application is complete it is sent to one of about 12 moral character analysts for review. If the application does not raise any significant concerns, the applicant will be granted admission. If the applicant’s record or the application itself has anything that gives the Committee cause for concern, requires more information or a closer consideration, the moral character analyst will first communicate with the applicant to determine whether, upon further explanation, the issue can be resolved. If not, the application will be forwarded to the supervisory level where the analyst’s supervisor, along with the Director of Moral Character will review the application, determine whether further information is still needed, or whether the application is so problematic that it must be sent to the Committee of Bar Examiner’s Subcommittee on Moral Character for its determination as to whether the application should be accepted, denied, or whether the applicant should be asked to appear before the Subcommittee for an “Informal Conference.” Currently, the Subcommittee is not generally denying applications without first offering the applicant a chance to attend an “Informal Conference.”
Initial processing of the application can take up to six (6) months, and the completion of the Subcommittee’s review of the application and determination can take a few more months to more than a year, depending on the number and severity of the issues with the application that need to be addressed and the workload of the Subcommittee.
In some cases, the Subcommittee may invite an applicant to attend an Informal Conference with a panel of its members to further evaluate the application. An applicant is not required to participate in the informal Conference, and may request a determination be made based solely on the applicant’s record and submissions. However, accepting the invitation is usually recommended. After all, the applicant bears the burden of establishing good character. An applicant is permitted to have counsel present at the informal meeting, but aside from listening to the Subcommittee’s questions and observing the applicant’s response, the applicant’s lawyer may not speak on behalf of the applicant or coach in anyway. The best approach is to go into the meeting prepared, even for the unexpected. Experienced ADDC members can assist applicants in preparation for the Informal Conference.
Abeyance of Application
In certain cases, rather than make an ultimate decision whether to admit or deny admission, the Committee may invite an applicant to enter into an abeyance agreement whereby the applicant agrees that a determination as to moral character will be held pending satisfaction of certain conditions by the applicant, such as completion of alcohol education programs for applicants with a history of alcohol abuse, completion of a certain number of continuing legal education courses, or attendance of the State Bar’s Ethics School course. The terms of each abeyance agreement vary, depending on the applicant’s record. At the conclusion of the abeyance period, which also varies as to length of time, or upon successful completion of the conditions, the Committee will take the application out of abeyance and make its final decision.
As with the Informal Conference, entering into an abeyance agreement with the Committee is voluntary; an applicant can reject the offer and ask that the Committee make a determination without the completion of the abeyance conditions. There are exceptional circumstances, but it is generally encouraged to accept an abeyance agreement if one is offered.
Options After Negative Determination
If the Committee determines that an applicant does not possess the present positive moral character to be admitted to the practice of law, an applicant has a few options. If the applicant was not previously invited by the Committee to attend an informal meeting, the applicant may request one following a negative determination. If an applicant was previously invited to an informal meeting and either attended the meeting or rejected the invitation, the applicant can either wait two (2) years and resubmit a whole new moral character application and start the process over again, or file an appeal of the negative determination with the State Bar Court, which initiates formal proceeding. The Committee will be represented by an attorney from the State Bar’s Office of the Chief Trial Counsel (the same office that prosecutes attorneys in discipline matters), and it is highly encouraged that an applicant be represented by counsel as well. If formal proceedings are initiated, the determination of whether the applicant possesses positive moral character will be made by a State Bar judge. In some cases, obtaining a determination through a formal appeal of the negative determination can take as long as the two-year reapplication period.
For more information about Admissions and the Moral Character process, visit the following link to the State Bar website