Lite DePalma Greenberg, LLC frequently represents candidates for admission to the New Jersey Bar in connection with proceedings before the Supreme Court of New Jersey Committee on Character. One of the firm’s Members, Bruce D. Greenberg, served as a member of the Committee on Character for fifteen years and has unique insight into the workings of that Committee.
Committee on Character and Fitness Review Process
Under New Jersey Court Rule 1:25, the Committee on Character, whose members are appointed by the Supreme Court of New Jersey, have the duty “to determine the fitness to practice law of each candidate for admission to the bar of the State of New Jersey on the basis of and by reviewing the personal record and reputation of each candidate and, following such review, to certify as to such fitness to the Supreme Court or withhold such certification.” Bar candidates must complete a prescribed form, the Character and Fitness Questionnaire (“CFQ”), as the core of that process.
The CFQ inquires about a wide range of matters that may affect a candidate’s current character and fitness to practice law. These include the following subjects:
Many of the questions call for the candidate to attach documents that support or elaborate upon the answers to the CFQ’s questions.
In addition to the CFQ, the Committee obtains law school applications, information from law enforcement agencies, and credit reports for each candidate.
The CFQ’s and other materials are reviewed by members of the Committee on Character, all of whom are New Jersey attorneys who serve on the Committee pro bono. Each candidate’s file is initially assigned to a single Committee member for review. That Committee member has the power to certify a candidate for admission if the Committee member finds nothing untoward in the CFQ or other materials. The reviewing attorney also has the ability to require the candidate to provide additional documentation as to any relevant issue.
Barriers to Character and Fitness Approval
Most candidates are readily certified by their reviewing attorney. When those candidates pass the New Jersey Bar examination, they are also notified that they have been certified for admission by the Committee on Character. Other candidates, who may have relatively minor issues exposed by their answers to the CFQ, may be asked to conduct an interview with their reviewing attorney. If the interview persuades the reviewing attorney that any issues do not rise to a level that precludes certification, the reviewing attorney can then certify the candidate for admission without further proceedings.
But for some candidates, the Committee on Character is a bigger hurdle. The CFQ and the other materials in a candidate’s file can reveal serious potential character issues. Some of the most common ones include a history of drug, alcohol, or other addictions, financial impropriety or irresponsibility, a criminal record, misrepresentation to the candidate’s law school in his or her law school application, breach of trust in employment or otherwise, and many other potential problems.
Financial issues that can loom large before the Committee on Character can be of multiple types. A bankruptcy filing, failure to file tax returns or to pay taxes, or (for attorneys admitted in other jurisdictions who then seek admission to the New Jersey Bar) mishandling of client funds all are “red flags” for the Committee.
Issues relating to candor and honesty are perhaps the biggest impediment to Bar admission. Lack of candor in the Committee on Character process has resulted in adverse decisions by the Committee. Other offenses related to dishonesty, such as plagiarism or cheating in law school, can also lead to a decision to withhold certification.
Initial Hearings, Adverse Recommendations, and Appeals
When an issue such as those examples above appears, the reviewing attorney is likely to decide that he or she will not certify a candidate on his or her own. At that point, a hearing (known as a RG 303 Hearing, which is named for the Committee on Character regulation that addresses such hearings) will be convened. RG 303 Hearings normally occur before a panel of three members of the Committee on Character, one of whom is the reviewing attorney for the candidate in question. A Staff Attorney for the Committee, and sometimes one of the Committee’s investigators, also attends the RG 303 Hearing.
The hearing is usually conducted in the office of one of the panel members. The atmosphere is similar to that of a deposition, with a court reporter transcribing the proceedings. The RG 303 Hearing is not adversarial, but the panel members will question closely the candidate and any other witnesses about the issues relevant to current character and fitness to practice law. At some point after the hearing, the panel issues a Report and Recommendation that calls for the candidate to be certified for admission to the New Jersey Bar, with or without conditions, or for certification to be withheld.
A candidate who receives an adverse Report and Recommendation can appeal to the Statewide Panel of the Committee on Character, under Committee on Character regulation RG 304. A favorable RG 303 Hearing Report and Recommendation also goes next to the Statewide Panel. In either case, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has the final word, and candidates who receive adverse decisions from an RG 304 appeal can file exceptions with the Supreme Court.
Benefits of Legal Representation
In many circumstances, it is prudent for a candidate to engage counsel in dealing with the Committee on Character process. The stakes are very high: Bar candidates have invested 19 years of education (twelve years through high school, four years of college, and three years of law school), and many thousands of dollars in education costs to reach the point of applying for Bar admission. After all that, Bar candidates will want to take all reasonable steps to clear the final hurdle of Committee on Character certification.
If you need counsel in connection with the character and fitness application, hearing, or appeal process, please contact Bruce D. Greenberg, who oversees the firm’s New Jersey Committee on Character and Appellate Law practices.