WHAT IS CHARACTER AND FITNESS FOR A MICHIGAN BAR APPLICANT

To practice law in Michigan, an applicant must meet the following requirements: 1) graduate from an ABA accredited law school or its equivalent, 2) take and pass the MPRE, 3) take and pass the Michigan Bar Examination and 4) demonstratethe requisite personal character and moral fitness to practice law. That fourth standard is the least objectively defined.

What is ‘The Requisite Character and Fitness’ To Practice Law

Good Moral Character and Fitness is a set of characteristics for the public and business conduct that guides lawyers in the ethical and moral decisions that they make in their day-to-day practice.   It requires the applicant to be competent and diligent in work habits.  It is a broadly defined and vague standard designed to give the State Bar of Michigan to ability to examine all aspects of an applicant’s life where ability, diligence, ethics and conduct may be observed and judged.

The most important thing to know that your character and fitness is based on who you are today. It is not a measure of who you were in high school or college necessarily. It is not about your resume or how perfectly you live your life. It is about your current competence, honesty, integrity, wellness, self-enrichment and confidence in yourself.

Your competence is measured in the testing. It is more or less a bright line standard with a few notable exceptions. Honesty and integrity start with your law school application.  Any misrepresentation, even of a minor nature, that becomes apparent in the application process that shows up in your licensing application will flag your file for review. So, when you apply for law school, come clean. Better to over-disclose than under-disclose any activity requested.  As you finish law school, you will begin to gather information for the State Bar of Michigan application.  This is no small effort as it requires detailed background information going back into your teenage years.  You must be as detailed and open as possible in your disclosure.  Do not guess about answers.  You should look at all records regarding factual representations you make in the application if you are not 100% certain of the answer. This calls not just on your honesty but your integrity by being thorough in researching your answers.

Your wellness and self-confidence are measured in the application process, too. This means disclosure of health concerns that might compromise your abilities to represent your clients.   The StateBar of Michigan is not trying to bar those with disabilities from practicing, but will protect the public from lawyers whose ability is affected by any problem.  Again, the measure is not whether you have a disability or not, but how you manage it and are able to demonstrate how it will not affect the consuming public who may hire you to address their problems.

Nobody goes through life not making mistakes.  Some mistakes are public and must be disclosed and discussed.  Crime and other contacts with law enforcement, both major and minor, could affect your ability to act honorably as a lawyer.  Addictions and neuroses can pose a threat to your clients if not acknowledged and under treatment.  Lapses in integrity as evidenced by cheating, lying or other fraudulent behavior in your past raises critical questions about your integrity. The application process requires full disclosure and gives you the opportunity to put these types of incidents into context and show how they are not part of your current character.  The application process also gives you an opportunity to demonstrate your character on how dealt with the issue.

Other issues such as financial responsibility, work history, litigation history and previous licensure are just some of the issues that can affect your application.  Again, it is important to be as open and prepared as you can be in your answers about these issues, too.  These incidents can also reflect on ability or ethics.  They are important to discuss and disclose to demonstrate your current fitness.

Generally speaking, these issues are explained in the application and do not pose a reason to delay your application.  If further information is required, it is to make sure the State Bar has enough information or has a clear idea of items you disclose.

The Standard

Everyone approaches the problems that life poses based on who you are.  Lawyers are in the problem solving business.  We are officers of the court and held by the public to a high standard.  Our ethics require a good amount of self-reporting.  If you find yourself in the position of having issues in your past that are not your proudest moments but you are obligated to disclose and discuss, do so completely, honestly and with integrity based on any record of which you are aware.  How you dealt with the issue afterwords says more about your good character than anything else.  The standard is, in my opinion, how well you understand yourself, including your flaws, in a manner that you can conduct yourself as a professional and look out for the needs and priorities of your clients above your own.

A lot of it has to do with the wording of the application.  Remember, you are a stranger to the investigator.  They are trained to look for normal applications and anomalies that might be of interest to the State Bar of Michigan or the Michigan Board of Law Examiners.  If your application is not defensive or vague, it does not raise a direct issue of lack of disclosure but rather the past conduct itself.  You are better off explaining the past rather than explaining your cover up of the past.

I am sure you are a good person.  You are human so I expect that you have made one or two errors in your life.  These are not reasons to deny you a license.  Embrace who you are, faults included.  If you can do that, you are a long way towards meeting the standard.