Sometime between the time you apply for a license to practice law and your swearing-in day, there exists moments of anxiety. It might come in of the form of a letter from the State Bar of Michigan’s Character & Fitness department or your own knowledge that something happened in your recent or distant past for which you know you’ll have to answer to someone. Some people get e-mails asking for clarification on an application question and that simple inquiry is enough to distract or even despair. Of course, it does not take much to distract any applicant waiting for approval from the State Bar of Michigan and ultimately from the Board of Law Examiners.
The District Committee
When circumstances dictate, an applicant will be called into an in-person meeting with State Bar incarnated in the form of a District Committee. The District Committee is made up of lawyers appointed by the State Bar of Michigan’s Board of Commissioners based upon their locality. The districts correspond to the State Bar of Michigan’s geographic regions. The members of the committee are appointed for three years. All members of the committee are volunteers. It is considered an honor to be a member of the District Committee and the individual members take their work seriously.
It is considered an ‘informal’ meeting according to the Rules on Admission to the State Bar. The roles and duties of Committee members are dictated by the State Bar rules regarding character & fitness. The conduct of the district committee meetings are dictated by the same rules. All the meetings are taped though the contents of the meeting are not transcribed nor are the tapes available to the applicant. The District Committee will meet, review the applicant’s application, meet with and interview the candidate and make a decision about the candidate’s fitness. They will then issue an opinion which is reviewed by the Standing Committee on Character & Fitness who can either accept the District’s recommendation and pass the approved application to the Board of Law Examiners for their approval, accept the recommendation but still want to meet with the candidate or reject the applicant giving the applicant the opportunity to appear before a standing committee to make the case for an applicant’s requisite character & fitness. The candidate may bring a lawyer to the meeting as well as other supporting materials that might affect the committee’s decision.
A candidate who will have to meet with the District Committee will receive a letter and a referral sheet from the State Bar of Michigan’s Character & Fitness department. The meeting will then be scheduled through the District Committee chairman’s office. The Chairman will then find three to five members of the District Committee who will agree to sit on the applicant’s panel. The panelists will have the application and the referral sheet of the applicant. The committee’s readiness is dictated by the amount of time they have had to prepare for the meeting. Most issues are straight-forward enough, but some issues do contain subtleties.
Bringing an attorney to a District Committee meeting is a matter of comfort and preference. Most issues do not require a lawyer but rather thorough preparation and honest responses. The advantage to having a lawyer and consulting with a lawyer prior to the meeting is to reduce the ’surprise’ factor and to properly prepare you to honestly answer the questions you will get. The attorney will also prepare you to meet the burden of proof for the hearing: you are responsible to prove by clear and convincing evidence that you possess the requisite character & fitness to practice law. It is not presumed.
Now, if you have an issue which will not resolve at a District Committee meeting, your lawyer can help you deal with the District Committee meeting with an eye for preparing you for the Standing Committee meeting. The opinion set forth by the District Committee could very well dictate the tone of the Standing Committee hearing.
The Bottom Line
The most difficult part of a District Committee meeting is having to open up yourself and your past to complete strangers who will ask you the hard questions about the issues you present. These hard questions will be asked, sometimes multiple times and in slightly different forms, to see how you feel about the issue. The real measure of character is how you deal with them. I compare going to a District Committee meeting much like falling into quicksand: if you struggle and squirm, you will pull yourself deeper into the morass. But, if you keep your cool and answer the committee’s questions directly, you’ll get through the ‘hard parts’ quicker and resolve the committee’s concerns more readily. In other words, the key to your success in a District Committee meeting is in your hands.
Feel free to contact my office for more information regarding district committees, standing committee hearings and hearings before the Board of Law Examiners.