Qualifications for Admission to the Bar
During the law school admissions process, you will be required to respond to questions about past instances of your conduct -- academic discipline, college residence hall violations, criminal charges, even minor traffic violations. These questions, and your responses, are the first step in assessing your character and fitness for the legal profession, and how you respond can have important implications not just for your admission to law school, but for your admission to the practice of law.
In addition to a bar examination, there are character, fitness, and other qualifications for admission to the bar in every U.S. jurisdiction. Applicants are encouraged to determine the requirements for jurisdictions in which they intend to seek admission by contacting those jurisdictions. Addresses for all relevant agencies are available through the National Conference of Bar Examiners. South Carolina Judicial Department Rule 402 governs admission to practice in South Carolina. You can find detailed information about requirements in other states in the Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements, published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, or you can contact the office of bar admissions in the jurisdiction where you plan to seek admission to practice.
While the character and fitness inquiry will vary from state to state, most offices
of bar admissions will consider the following things.
Candor and Honesty with Respect to Past Disciplinary Action or Violations of the Law
Law schools require applicants for admission to be completely honest in responding to questions on the application concerning past conduct. The questions on South Carolina's application for admission are:
- Have you ever been placed on probation, disciplined, suspended, or expelled by any college or university for academic reasons or for violation of a conduct or honor code?
- Have you ever withdrawn from a college or university after being accused of a conduct or honor code violation?
- Are any disciplinary charges pending or expected to be brought against you?
- Have you ever been arrested, taken into custody, or accused, formally or informally, of a violation of the law?
- Are any criminal charges pending or expected to be brought against you?
Application instructions require you to "[i]nclude all disciplinary actions, charges, convictions, and traffic violations." You may exclude parking tickets, but you must disclose all traffic violations, including those you consider to be minor. You must provide a complete record of all instances in which you have been arrested, taken into custody, or accused, formally or informally, of a violation of the law. Include instances that have been expunged by court orders and juvenile offenses, whether or not the records are sealed. You should disclose each instance even if the charges were dismissed; you were acquitted; adjudication was withheld; a conviction was reversed, set aside, or vacated; the record was sealed or expunged, or you participated in a pre-trial intervention program. If you answer "yes" to any of the questions, attach a detailed explanation giving dates, locations, the nature of the charges, the disposition of the cases, and all sanctions imposed. Simply including a copy of your driving or criminal record without including your detailed explanation is insufficient.
When you submit your application for admission, you sign (or electronically certify) a statement that says:
I certify that I have read the instructions included with this application for admission to the University of South Carolina School of Law, and that the information on this application and in any supplementary materials provided in connection with this application is truthful, correct, and complete to the best of my knowledge. I understand that I must promptly notify the Office of Admissions of any change to the information in this application, or of any new information without which the application as submitted would be inaccurate or incomplete. I understand that my duty to inform the School of Law continues until I receive a final admissions decision and, if admitted, until the time that I enroll as a student at the School of Law.
Your duty to disclose past conduct is not the same at every law school. The questions on South Carolina Law's application are more extensive than on many other law school applications. When an incident occurred, you may have been told by a lawyer, parent, or college official that disclosure of the offense or finding of responsibility was not necessary. In some cases, the disposition of the matter may have been ambiguous, such as when you were required to perform community service, or you were told that if you stay out of trouble for a period of time that an incident will not appear on your record. Often, a court or disciplinary board may have made a finding of responsibility on your part but simply suspended any sanction pending completion of community service or for a period of time without further incident. You may not have realized that a finding of responsibility was even entered on your record.
In applying for admission to law school, your duty of disclosure is comprehensive. Like any law enforcement or government agency, the Bar has extensive rights of access to your record, much more so than in a typical employment- or credit-related background check. Many jurisdictions will require you to submit a copy of your law school application as part of your application for admission to the Bar. A character and fitness committee will likely compare your law school application with your application to the Bar and the information it discovers in its background investigation. Any disparity between what the committee discovers and what you disclosed to the law school will almost certainly result in a more exhaustive investigation into your past record, and you may be called on to explain inconsistencies between disclosures in your bar application and your law school application. It is critically important, therefore, that you be completely honest and forthcoming about any conduct that is the subject of questions on the application.
Neither the law school, nor a committee on character andd fitness, expects all applicants to have lived faultless lives. The judgments and decisions that people make as teenagers or college students may not be those they would make as mature adults. It is important is that applicants provide the detailed information requested, acknowledge the imprudent judgment or decision, accept responsibility for it, and provide a reasonable basis for a law school admissions committee or a committee on character and fitness to feel confident that the applicant will exercise good judgment in the future. Failing to disclose past conduct completely will, in most cases, be far more serious and with far greater consequences than the conduct itself.
Many studies have shown that the frequency of substance abuse is significantly higher for lawyers than for the population as a whole, and a high proportion of cases involving lawyer discipline also involve dependency on alcohol or other drugs. Many lawyers are reluctant to seek help with chemical dependency issues, fearing the stigma of that dependency or being considered as unable to "cope" in a high-stakes, high-stress profession. For that reason, a character and fitness committee will inquire into whether an applicant's use of alcohol or drugs could adversely affect their ability to practice law. Applicants will not be denied admission to practice for having sought treatment for addiction or for being in recovery from addiction. As with questions of past conduct, the committee seeks only to ensure that an applicant is capable of fulfilling professional obligations. Applicants who have struggled with addiction or who have concerns about their relationship with alcohol or drugs are encouraged to seek treatment. The South Carolina Bar's Lawyers Helping Lawyers program is available to prospective applicants or law students who have questions or who would like to talk on a confidential basis to an experienced and sympathetic lawyer and substance abuse counselor about the use of alcohol or drugs.
Some jurisdictions require applicants for admission to practice to disclose all outstanding debts and to submit a complete credit history as part of the application process. Many lawyers are entrusted with client funds and may have access to significant amounts of money. A history of responsible personal financial management will give a character and fitness committee confidence that the applicant is worthy of that trust. Applicants who have defaulted on financial obligations, who have poor credit histories, or who are currently past due on credit accounts are encouraged to satisfy outstanding obligations as quickly as possible. The three major credit reporting agencies (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) will provide you with one credit report each year at no cost. Since there may be errors on your credit report, you should review your credit report well in advance of the time you apply for admission to the Bar to enable them to be corrected in a timely fashion.
As with substance abuse issues, a diagnosis of mental illness, or a history of treatment for mental illness, will not in themselves be a basis for denial of admission to practice. A character and fitness committee will focus on whether any mental health issues are likely to interfere with an applicant's ability to satisfy responsibilities as a lawyer. The committee may ask the applicant to provide information about treatment for mental illness to assess whether the applicant is addressing psychological or emotional issues in a mature, proactive way. Applicants should not avoid seeking counseling or other treatment in fear that it will have an adverse impact on their admission to practice. On the contrary, applicants who acknowledge the need for, and obtain, professional support to address mental health issues are far more likely to give the committee confidence that they will be a successful practitioner of the law than applicants who try to "tough it out" without professional help.
Applicants for admission to the University of South Carolina School of Law who have questions about whether to disclose information in response to a question on the application, the degree of detail that should be disclosed, or any other question concerning a potential character and fitness issue, are strongly encouraged to contact the Director for Admissions or the Vice Dean for Admissions, Career & Professional Development, and Student Affairs to discuss their concerns. All inquiries will be treated as confidential.
Obtaining an Advisory Opinion on Character and Fitness Issues
Like some other jurisdictions, the South Carolina Bar has a provision allowing law students to seek an advisory opinion if they are concerned that past conduct, criminal convictions, financial issues, or other matters may prevent them from being admitted to practice. South Carolina Judicial Department Rule 402(g)(2) provides:
A student enrolled in a law school … who has a character problem that might disqualify the student from being admitted to practice law may have the matter resolved by filing a provisional application. The application shall be made on a form approved by the Committee on Character and Fitness and shall be filed in duplicate with the Clerk of the Supreme Court. Each request must be accompanied by a non-refundable fee of $100. The Committee may begin an immediate investigation of the individual's character and shall promptly notify the individual of its determination. No adverse inference concerning an applicant's character and fitness shall be drawn because the applicant filed a provisional application, nor does the filing of a provisional application relieve an applicant from fully complying with the normal application process.