Young professional shaking hands across a desk
Young professional shaking hands across a desk

Character and Fitness Assessment 

By: Bethany Pierpont, Esq., National Director, Helix Bar Review

Leer la versión en español.

In every U.S. jurisdiction, you must first complete the bar application process before you are licensed to practice law. Every state’s procedure is a little different (here is a great resource if you want to find out more about your jurisdiction’s requirements), but they all require a Character and Fitness evaluation as part of your ticket to admission (to access the Character and Fitness worksheet and lots of other helpful free law school and bar prep resources, create an account through Ask EDNA!, the Education Network at AccessLex). Through this process, your jurisdiction’s licensing authority evaluates your background to ensure that you are morally fit to represent clients and practice law.

The Character and Fitness assessment can feel daunting and intrusive, but with a little preparation, you can make it through with minimal stress. So, here are a few tips to help you breeze through your background check and come out on the other side with Character and Fitness clearance:

Full Disclosure is Key

This is THE most important thing to remember as you complete your Character and Fitness application. Your jurisdiction’s licensing board doesn’t expect you to have a spotless background, but they do expect honesty from you. Have a minor-in-possession charge or a bunch of moving violations? Well, so do a lot of people who go on to become fine lawyers!

Each jurisdiction’s application is different, and it is a good idea to look at your jurisdiction’s application now so that you can begin to gather the necessary information and documents. But there is some information that you will be asked about everywhere:

  • Address history
  • Employment history (including any disciplinary actions)
  • Academic details (again, making sure to include any disciplinary actions)
  • Criminal and civil actions
  • Penalties
  • Compliance with any judgements against you
  • Financial history

Remember, it is always better to be thorough and tell the truth when filling out the Character and Fitness application. For the most part, an indiscretion from your past will not bar your licensure, but you know what will? Failing to report that information. Honesty and candor are essential lawyering traits, and your jurisdiction is looking to see that you’ve accepted responsibility for past transgressions and are not likely to repeat questionable behavior. They want to see that you have a record of conduct that justifies the trust others will put in you.

Have a spotless background? Great! That doesn’t mean you can let down your guard. Accidental failures to disclose even small things like a place of employment or past address can flag your file for further investigation. So, be vigilant when filling out your application and start to gather the necessary information now!

Consistency is Important

Do you remember applying to law school? At the time, did you wonder why each school asked detailed questions about your background? This is because your law school admissions board has an ethical duty to only admit students whom they believe can pass the bar exam and become lawyers. So, before sending you that offer of admission, your school needed to make sure there were no ethical red flags. The Character and Fitness application process for licensure is similar, and both applications should contain consistent disclosures. If you don’t remember those answers on your law school application, ask your law school for a copy of it, just to be sure!

What happens if you realize you forgot to disclose something on your law school application? To be consistent, you’ll need to amend your law school application. Every law school will have a process for this, so check with your administrators (we recommend starting with your Dean of Students or Dean of Academic Affairs) to find out how to make the change. Remember, honesty and candor are key, so if you forgot to disclose something, don’t try to hide it. Simply amend your law school application and disclose it on your bar application.

Life Happens

Now that you’ve submitted your bar application to your jurisdiction, you can forget all about it while you begin studying for the bar, right? Not quite. You have a continuing duty to update your responses any time an answer to a question on your bar application changes. So, when life happens – you change jobs, you move, or maybe (like someone who shall remain nameless) you get a speeding ticket (oops!) – you need to tell the state licensing authority. Your state will have a process for making these amendments – make sure you are aware of it – and as soon as you have something to disclose, follow that procedure. This happens to a lot of applicants (which is why there’s a process in place), and if you have questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to your jurisdiction’s licensing board. They have employees dedicated to helping you figure this stuff out. (Don’t know how to contact your state’s board of law examiners? Bookmark this resource with the contact information for the licensing agency in each state.)

The Character and Fitness evaluation process gets a bad rap for being overwhelming, stress-inducing, and invasive. But with a little preparation, you’ll be able to get through this. It may take some time to gather the necessary information and documentation so start planning early. Reach out for help if you have any questions along the way and remember – repeat it with me – honesty and candor are key. Err on the side of disclosure and truthfulness and you’ll make it through. And once you’ve cleared Character and Fitness, you’ll be one giant leap closer to becoming a licensed attorney!

Want to learn more about the bar application process (including the Character and Fitness evaluation)? Check out one of our live webinars on The Road to Licensure.