The short answer – ALL THE THINGS!
A new crop of rising 3L’s will soon begin filling out bar applications. Some of you will have some minor indiscretions in your past. And you’ll be wondering – like I did – whether you should disclose it to your state bar’s character and fitness committee, because after all, it wasn’t that big a deal, and it’s highly unlikely they discover it anyway. But that’s the wrong mindset.
What should you disclose to the character and fitness committee?
If your misdeed is minor, the character and fitness committee will not likely be dissuaded from allowing you into the fraternity of practicing lawyers as a result. But if you choose not to disclose your ill-conceived acts, and if the character and fitness committee learns of your past, it is going to perceive that you have attempted to deceive it. And lying to the state bar is a much greater offense than … say … lighting a smoke bomb in a dormitory (and not the little, colorful one depicted here – we’re talking about the big ones that look like a stick of dynamite). Even if that smoke bomb caused the entire dorm to be evacuated, and hordes of firefighters and police to arrive on the scene. Because that’s what I had to disclose.
This event had occurred my sophomore years of college (2001), ten years before I applied for the bar. I was fairly certain there was no written record of either the incident itself or my subsequent disciplinary probation with the school. And even if there were, there was an entirely different administration at the school. No one even knew me there anymore. It seemed highly unlikely that this event would be found out by the character and fitness committee if I didn’t tell them.
Why should you disclose all the things to the character and fitness committee?
Because lying to the state bar is a big deal. Even if it’s lying by omission. It didn’t take me long to discern that despite the negligible chances that the bar would learn of my disciplinary probation, I should disclose it in my application. So I did. And sure enough, I received a letter in the mail, to the effect of “Tell us more.” So I wrote out my tale of a sophomoric prank gone awry. It’s a good story, and I told it well. I’m sure the reader at the Alabama State Bar was entertained and decided it was mostly harmless. I later got my clearance … and the rest, as they say, is history.
But had I not chosen to tell the bar about my prank that turned out to have been a bad idea, my story may have come out differently. Maybe I still would have been allowed to practice law. But I certainly would have had to appear before character and fitness to explain my deceit to them. Maybe I start out my career on probation. Maybe the firm that eventually hired me decides they don’t need a lawyer who can’t be honest in his bar application process.
Because despite popular mythology, honesty is hugely important in our profession. You’re going to be handling people’s lives and livelihoods. You may be handling thousands or even millions of dollars at a time. You are going to be working with and against other counsel for the next thirty or forty years. Your reputation for integrity is going to be established early in your career. And if that reputation is one of mistrust, it’s a reputation that’s going to be difficult to shed.
Your reputation for honesty, however, can start with and be proven by your willingness to own up to your mistakes and disclose them to the character and fitness committee.
Photo by Karin Dalziel.