The Final Hurdle for New Lawyers: The New Jersey Supreme Court's Committee On Character
Before being able to practice law, aspiring lawyers must go through at least nineteen years of education (twelve years through high school, four years of college, and three years of law school). Then they must pass one or more bar examinations. But no one can become an attorney unless the Committee on Character in their state clears them to practice.
For many people, the Committee on Character is a non-issue. There is nothing in their backgrounds that would cause any concern about their current character and fitness to practice law. For others, however, getting certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey’s Committee on Character looms large. Bar admission candidates who have had criminal involvement, alcohol, drug, or other addiction issues, problems with student loans, issues relating to trust or honesty, or any of a multitude of other impediments that might affect character and fitness must take the Committee on Character process especially seriously.
The best solution to the Committee on Character hurdle is not to have had an issue that causes concern about character or fitness. But if there is a blemish on a candidate’s record, the candidate must deal with the situation as it stands.
Anyone who has ever bought a diamond, for an engagement ring or otherwise, has heard of the “four C’s” of diamond purchasing: color, cut, clarity, and carats. In dealing with Supreme Court of New Jersey Committee on Character issues, there are also “four C’s” that, if properly addressed, will help maximize a candidate’s chances of clearing the Committee as quickly and easily as possible. Those “four C’s” are candor, clarity, completeness, and contrition.
Candor is the single biggest component of a candidate’s written application, known as the Certified Statement, to the Committee on Character. As its name implies, the Certified Statement is submitted under oath by each applicant for admission to the bar.
The Committee investigates the background of every candidate in various ways, but ultimately reliance is placed on the candor of the applicant in answering every question on the Certified Statement with complete candor. That means disclosing facts that are embarrassing, or worse, rather than hiding them and hoping that no one will find out about them.
A bar candidate can overcome most problems in his or her background, and can get admitted as an attorney sooner or later, if those problems are disclosed. But a lack of candor can be almost the equivalent of a capital offense. That is because (among other things) candor to courts and others is required of all attorneys by the Rules of Professional Conduct. Those who cannot be candid in seeking bar admission presumptively cannot be trusted to be candid once admitted. Thus, as difficult as it is, candidates must resist the temptation to conceal unpleasant facts in completing their Certified Statements.
Clarity means that applicants must be crystal clear in disclosing problems in their backgrounds. It is of no use to disclose issues but not to make fully explicit the nature, scope, and extent of the problem(s). A vague or fuzzy “disclosure” will merely lead the Committee on Character reviewer to contact the candidate and probe more deeply, and may leave the reviewer with the impression that the applicant is trying to duck or dodge.
A lack of clarity in what is being disclosed undermines a candidate’s intent to show candor, the first of the “C’s.” Again, though it is hard to have to put in writing a clear statement that one has done something in the past that is negative, facing up to that history, clearly and directly, is the best way to attempt to demonstrate current character and fitness.
Completeness is related to candor and clarity. It is often tempting not to tell the full story of unhappy events in one’s past. But an incomplete statement can be as wrongful and incriminating as not revealing anything at all and, like a failure to disclose at all, it creates the appearance that the candidate is trying to mislead. Indeed, in civil law, it is an accepted principle that partial disclosure can amount to fraud.
If a Certified Statement appears to be less than fully complete on a particular issue, the Committee on Character reviewer will certainly follow up with the candidate to fill in the details. Eventually, the full truth will come out, and it will appear that the candidate was trying to conceal the worst parts. It is far better to disclose the complete picture, however distasteful, up front, in the Certified Statement, than to have it surface later through other means.
Contrition is the last, but not the least, of the “four C’s.” The Committee on Character process focuses on current character and fitness to practice law. Thus, what the Committee is looking for is evidence that, whatever occurred in the past, the future will not involve any adverse conduct by the applicant.
Recognizing the errors of one’s past ways is a key part of demonstrating that there will be no need for the Supreme Court or its Committee on Character to worry about bad acts being repeated. Indeed, published Supreme Court decisions emphasize the need for a candidate to show “rehabilitation,” and one aspect of rehabilitation is accepting responsibility for past conduct. Doing so expressly in the Certified Statement shows personal growth and inspires confidence that the candidate currently has and will continue to have the required character and fitness.
The “four C’s” may make the difference between a candidate who is certified by his or her reviewer without further ado, or after some informal followup by the reviewer, as most candidates are, or whether a full hearing before a three-person panel of the Committee on Character, which is often best handled by counsel for the applicant, will be necessary. Careful attention to the “four C’s” and scrupulous preparation of the Certified Statement, sometimes with advice about how best to do that, will go a long way.
I was a member of the Committee on Character for 15 years. I have represented a number of applicants before the Committee on Character since that time. To read more about my work, click here.