Bar Application Character And Fitness Background Check - Part 1

By Timothy Dinan

If you plan to practice law after graduation, you will have to meet your state’s requirements to be licensed as an attorney. No matter where you are in law school, it is never too early to think about your application to the bar. If you are in your final year of school, the time to begin the application process is now.


Bar Application Requirements

Attorneys are officers of the court in each of the jurisdiction(s) where they are admitted.  They take an oath of office when they are sworn into the bar. This gives them extraordinary powers and responsibilities upon licensure, such as the ability to initiate lawsuits, represent clients, and issue subpoenas. The court system does not want to vest that power with just anyone. 

Finishing law school is just one of the requirements of becoming a lawyer.  All jurisdictions have other requirements.  Unless your state has a “Diploma Privilege,” you will have to take and pass the bar examination and pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE).

Initially, students may not be aware of the background investigation to which they will be subjected on their journey to becoming an attorney. The purpose of the background investigation is not only to ensure you meet the requirements to practice law, but also to protect the public from unscrupulous persons.

Most bar applicants get through this process without issue when they carefully prepare their applications.


Bar Application Character And Fitness

Every jurisdiction investigates bar applicants. It is either done by the state bar association or in conjunction with the National Council of Bar Examiners.  The investigation is a comprehensive inquiry into your background requiring you to disclose information about your personal and professional life.  The information you provide will be supplemented by the investigation conducted by NCBEX or your bar. 

The investigation is designed to ensure all applicants meet the requirements for character and fitness to practice law.  Good moral character and fitness is vaguely defined as the ability to perform one’s professional work in an open, honest and forthright manner.  Most jurisdictions have statutes establishing what constitutes good moral character and fitness. 


Bar Application Background Investigation

The investigation into your background is not meant to trick you.  It is designed to extract information that gives your licensing board assurances you can handle the responsibility of being an attorney.  

Take a moment to look at your jurisdiction’s application form.  It is lengthy.  It requires you to provide a lot of detailed information that may not be immediately available.  As you go through the application form, look at what you know, what you do not know, and what records you may need for reference to answer the questions completely. 

Do not expect to get it done in one day. You may need to obtain court records, old transcripts, tax returns and former job information. If you lived overseas or served in the military, you may need other information. If you had a business, were licensed in another profession or had a surety bond as a condition of work, the investigators will need to know that.

Everywhere you attended school since high school, all your current and previous employment, and every address you have had since your teens is also subject to disclosure. Any contacts with the criminal justice system, court findings of mental instability, terminations from employment, and discipline while in school are just some of the areas investigated by your Board of Law Examiners. Even your financial and credit history are reviewed.


Accuracy Is Critical For Bar Applicants

Whatever information you provide, know that it must be absolutely accurate. Do not guess or estimate.  Take the time and effort to ensure your answer is accurate. The investigators assume all information put into your application is true and accurate. Many applicants have learned the hard way that inaccurate or mistaken information supplied in your application will delay its processing and raise an issue of possibly withholding negative data that you are bound to disclose.

Read the application directions thoroughly. Do not deviate from the language in the directions when preparing the form. If you have any questions about supplying an answer, call your state bar or NCBEX. You will find the people there to be generally helpful and willing to address your application concerns.


Part 2 of this article addresses how to find older data, disclosing negative information and the importance of language in your disclosures.  


Timothy Dinan is an attorney in MI and AZ and teaches at Michigan State University College of Law.  His practice specializes in bar preparation studies, bar admission issues, and attorney misconduct matters.  You can learn more about his practice at