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DEALING WITH YOUR TROUBLESOME PAST BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON CHARACTERBruce D. Greenberg

For some New Jersey Bar candidates, the Supreme Court of New Jersey Committee on Character is a formidable hurdle. Candidates with a criminal record, a history of alcohol or drug addiction or financial irresponsibility, incidents of dishonest conduct in school, at work, or as an attorney in another jurisdiction, or any of a number of other things likely will not have smooth sailing before the Committee on Character.

Nonetheless, all is not lost. Many candidates can be admitted to the New Jersey Bar despite their past. The test for Bar admission is current character and fitness to practice law, and the Supreme Court and its Committee on Character permit a candidate to show rehabilitation so as to overcome blots on his or her record.

As its published opinions reflect, the Supreme Court has admitted to the New Jersey Bar candidates whose histories were dire but who showed that they had the current character and fitness to practice law. In one such case, a candidate who had been admitted to the Bar of another jurisdiction had misappropriated checks given to him. He had a history of using illegal drugs, and that history led to his misappropriations. But he demonstrated to the Committee on Character that he had turned his life around, made restitution for his misappropriation, and otherwise showed rehabilitation. The Committee on Character recommended that he be admitted to the New Jersey Bar, and the Supreme Court agreed.

In another case, the candidate had a long history of drug and alcohol addiction. He also had a criminal history, including an arrest for possession of cocaine. Finally, there were questions about his candor in the Committee on Character process. The original proceeding before the Committee on Character resulted in a recommendation to withhold certification for Bar admission. Ultimately, however, the Supreme Court voted to admit the candidate, affirming the view of the Statewide Panel of the Committee on Character that had found rehabilitation and concluded that there were valid, innocent explanations for what had originally been perceived as lack of candor.

In my own practice, I have seen candidates gain Bar admission despite a number of different difficult circumstances. One candidate had a public lewdness incident and then failed to disclose it to the candidate’s law school as required. This candidate also had debts that were not handled correctly. Finally, the candidate wrote an unjustifiably nasty letter to the candidate’s reviewing attorney after the reviewing attorney had interviewed the candidate. Nonetheless, this candidate was able to get admitted to the New Jersey Bar.

Academic discipline for engaging in plagiarism during law school loomed large for another candidate. Such relatively recent conduct, involving dishonesty, might have been a barrier to Bar admission. However, the Committee on Character hearing panel was able to see “the whole person” and recognize that this was an aberrant incident. The candidate was admitted to the Bar.

Another candidate faced a different impediment to New Jersey Bar admission: substantial unpaid federal and state tax obligations resulting from some serious financial reverses. With the help of legal and accounting advice, the candidate was able to deal with the tax obligations and win a recommendation of admission by the Committee on Character. The Supreme Court ultimately admitted the candidate.

Finally, several clients who had drug or alcohol issues in their pasts were able to show rehabilitation and gain admission to the New Jersey Bar. The Committee on Character and the Supreme Court see those issues all too often but are willing to be shown that, despite a candidate’s past, there is current character and fitness to practice law.

There is, of course, no guarantee that a candidate with problems in his or her past will be admitted to the New Jersey Bar. But with proper effort and good legal advice, Bar admission can be achieved more often than perhaps some candidates might think.