Character and Fitness: The Bar's Background Check

After law school, the bar exam and the MPRE are not the only steps to becoming a lawyer! Each state and territory requires applicants to the bar to pass a character and fitness check before receiving a license to practice law. The purpose of the “C&F” process is to prevent those with histories of unethical conduct from becoming lawyers, minimizing the risk of harm to the public.

Your state bar is not looking for perfect humans, but it is looking for perfect candor. While it is statistically rare for bar admission to be denied on C&F grounds, it does happen. The key is to be honest and clear about your past challenges and to show that you have accepted responsibility and made any needed changes. If investigators catch you lying or being misleading, you’ll be more likely to face delays or even roadblocks in your application. Seek assistance from your law school or an outside advisor on your C&F application if you’ve had or have any criminal history, major financial issues, or addictions.

If you have anything you’re concerned about reporting (and most of us do), make sure to read through your jurisdiction’s guidelines on how it makes moral character determinations. For example, California provides detailed information on which violations it wants reported as part of the C&F process, and how it will make its moral character determinations. The NCBE and state bars also have publicly available sample questions. These resources will help guide your responses to the application questions.

Where Do I Apply?

First, check your state bar's admissions website to learn the rules in your state. Many states pay the NCBE to conduct background checks for them, in which case you’ll apply and submit all documents through the NCBE website (the NCBE does the investigation, but the state bar determines the result). Other states (like California) do their own and you’ll use their websites to submit the application. Some states, like Florida, use NCBE's service for foreign attorneys and do their own investigation for everyone else. However, even in those jurisdictions that do use NCBE's service, the ultimate determination of whether a candidate is qualified for admission is made by the state, not by the NCBE.

What’s On the Application?

The C&F application is usually the most in-depth background check most bar applicants have encountered in their lives. The application extends far beyond basic background information and educational history

In addition to general personal information like the names you have used and your place of birth, the state bar will want to see your entire educational, financial, and legal history. Many of these documents must be provided directly from a third party.

  • Educational history: the name of each institution attended, student ID numbers, status, years attended, and any disciplinary Your disciplinary history may need to include certified records supplied by the university.
  • Residential history: every residential address you have had for at least the last ten years.
  • Employment history: every employer after age 18 (sometimes limited to law-related employment), dates of employment, supervisor name and contact information, and any disciplinary records. You may need a character affidavit from each law-related employer.
  • Military service records: dates of service, positions, ID numbers, copies of DD Form 214.
  • Details of prior applications for and admission to the bar: exam and application dates, status, and reasons for any denied admission.
  • Other professional licenses and applications: any other occupational licenses you have held or applied for, even if the application was withdrawn, denied, or revoked, including: license numbers, current status, application dates, and explanations for any adverse actions. As stated above regarding employment history, you will need a copy of any professional complaint or disciplinary proceeding against you. Note that some jurisdictions only require a written description and may request copies of the documents, while others require the certified copies of all records from the relevant agencies.
  • Financial information: any bankruptcies, outstanding debts including delinquent child support, income taxes in repayment, or other debts in collections.
  • Legal records: records of past criminal charges and convictions, civil claims litigated, including divorce proceedings, and juvenile criminal records. Again, some jurisdictions only require a written description but may request copies of the documents, while others require the original, certified copies.
  • Driving records: driving records from licenses in other states or countries during the past ten years. This is another area where certified copies may be required.
  • Mental health history: any mental or emotional condition, addiction, or impairment that affects your ability to practice law, and whether the condition is being treated. The bar may request details of treatment along with your physician and hospital name. Note that the bar does not deny admission solely on the basis of having such a condition and some jurisdictions, such as New York for example, advise that if an applicant with a mental health condition is actively receiving treatment for it, it is viewed favorably for admission.
  • References from several people who know you well but are not family and/or from other lawyers licensed in the jurisdiction where you are seeking admission.

Examining the list provided by the NCBE or by your state bar will make it evident that this process may take longer than you may have initially expected – especially for applicants with significant work and life experience.

Timeline for a Character and Fitness Application

1. Gather Your Documents

A few months before you plan to submit your application, start tracking down the documents and references you will need from your past. Give yourself plenty of lead time when requesting documents from past educational institutions, governments, or banks. Institutions vary greatly in their transparency and response times!

Review your application's requirements carefully and think about what documents you will need.

You will need to provide documentation of all criminal and civil violations. This includes juvenile offenses such as underage drinking or drug use, divorce records, and even things like traffic convictions or fines. You will need these to show that you are in good standing and have paid any fines. Finally, if you were (or are) subject to any court orders, gather these records and, especially, include those showing that you’ve complied with all orders.

Investigators will run comprehensive background checks and other searches on your history. Thus, the best approach is to be forthcoming with your past – you will be much worse off if they find something you did not disclose. If you have challenging items to explain, use your records to tell a story about how you have taken responsibility for your actions, cleaned up your act, and are now trustworthy and honest enough to practice law. The bars do this to ensure the candor and integrity of all candidates. Use your past records and their accompanying explanations to show investigators that you will practice law with integrity and honesty.

Finally – as mentioned above – some jurisdictions such as California require information on any driver’s licenses held in other states or countries over the past ten years or after age 18, whichever is shorter. Answering this question requires you to submit certified copies of all driving records from other states regardless of whether you have received any violations. Some states do not have a smooth process for requesting these records, so prepare for delays.

Tip: For foreign attorneys, plan enough time to provide certified translations of all documents that are not in English.

While most states consider each applicant’s criminal history on a case-by-case basis, there are a few states (Kansas, Mississippi, Texas, and the Northern Mariana Islands) that flatly prohibit those with felony convictions from practicing law. Theoretically, you should have discussed any such past problems with your law school before being admitted or accepting financial aid. In the worst-case scenario, if your law school certified that your past conviction would not be a barrier to bar admission and your state bar rules prohibit admission due to that conviction, you may be eligible for forgiveness of some student loans.

Finally, keep in mind that bar associations are especially wary of applicants with histories of crimes of dishonesty (example: fraud or embezzlement). If you have such a history, consult with your law school or with outside counsel on how to report this information.

  • Financial Problems

Put in requests or track down documentation to show that you’re remedied any past financial problems. This could be with courts, your bank, creditors, or collections agencies. You will need to disclose any times you’ve been in collections, declared bankruptcy, missed significant numbers of student loan payments, or were sued for debt.

If you have current outstanding debts, get ahead of them before you apply. Work with a financial advisor to develop a payment plan and then stick with it.

  • Employment History and Past Licenses

Usually, states ask for all your employers since age 18 where your employment lasted longer than six months. If you’ve faced any disciplinary action by past employers, you’ll need to disclose that as well. Some jurisdictions also request recommendations or affidavits of good moral character from all past legal employers.

Reach out early to past employers if you need any of this documentation or even just to advise them that the state bar or the NCBE will be reaching out for a reference. You will also need to provide contact information for your past supervisors.

C&F applications also usually ask about other occupational licenses, including the date of application and result. If you’ve been denied a license, you may need to include those records as well.

  • Academic History

Similarly, you’ll also need to list all the educational institutions you’ve attended, your student ID number at each, and date of graduation. This goes for study abroad programs, which are often run by universities or institutions other than your own. Some jurisdictions (including New York) include high schools in these requests while others only want information about higher education. If necessary, request past transcripts from any schools you’ve attended.

You will need to disclose any academic disciplinary history – again, and as always, the best approach here is to be honest and forthcoming about any past problems and show that you’ve taken responsibility. Be consistent and honest about your explanations. Request and provide all such records from previous institutions. Your law school will also report to the state bar about your moral character, including any instances of misconduct or discipline, and will be asked to certify that it believes you will practice law with a good moral character. 

  • Mental Health Records

This is a tricky issue. Many states ask for information on current or past mental health conditions or substance addictions, date of diagnosis, and treatment. As mentioned above, states do not deny admission on the basis of such a condition or impairment and some jurisdictions, such as New York and Minnesota for example, view participation in mental health treatment favorably. The NCBE and many jurisdictions encourage anyone in need of treatment to seek it out. Again, and as always, here the key is honesty. Most jurisdictions want to know whether you are truthful and have your treatment under control. If the bar finds out that you did not disclose a mental health condition, even years in the future, they can theoretically revoke your license.

It is always better to receive treatment and the help you need rather than suffer in silence out of fear that a diagnosis will mar your C&F application. An untreated mental health condition can also make it more difficult to complete law school and pass the bar exam. Ultimately, your health and wellbeing should be your top priority and are key to being a successful attorney.

Check your state's Lawyer Assistance Program for confidential counseling and assistance navigating the C&F process with pre-existing mental health issues or addiction history. Overall, awareness of mental health conditions is growing and bar associations are used to seeing applicants with these conditions. They know that a majority of law students experience mental health problems. If you have a severe enough condition such that you are concerned about this affecting your application, discuss your situation with your law school or another advisor.

  • Addresses

For those who take the bar later in life, even this "routine" step can be challenging! Usually, you’ll be asked to provide a residential history for the past eight to ten years. You will need to include all addresses, regardless of how long you spent there. If you had no address for any period of time, you may need to attach an addendum explaining why. 

Tip: Amazon account histories or other online order confirmations can be a great way to find the address of a temporary residence you may have had in the past.

  • Fees

C&F applications, like everything else bar-related, can be expensive. Fees run from $395 to upwards of $600, depending on the state. The typical NCBE fee for a first-time applicant hovers around $550 and – if you’re foreign attorney – $950. Fees are increased if you’re a year or more out of law school, but can be less if the NCBE has already run a check on you for another jurisdiction.

Some states, like Pennsylvania and Colorado, roll C&F fees into the fees signing up for the bar exam. This can significantly boost how much you’ll need to pay at one time. Note also that many states charge late fees.

Have a plan for how you are going to pay fees, and remember that most bar associations charge extra fees for certain payment methods like credit cards.

2. Apply By the Deadline

C&F application timelines vary by jurisdiction. Some states have students begin the process during their 1L or 2L years (including Texas, Illinois, Ohio). Most states have examinees submit their C&F applications when they sign up to take the bar. Washington has applicants do so 60 days before their bar exam while in New York this happens after the bar exam. Some states, like California, have no specific window. But, in order to be eligible to receive your bar license by the time bar results are out, it’s best to submit your C&F application no later than February 1st if you plan to take a July bar exam.

It's OK if your application isn't approved by the time bar results are out. You won't need to re-take the exam. You'll just need to wait for your C&F application to be approved before your state will give you your license.

If you anticipate any delays in the process – for example, if you have an arrest or criminal history you’ll need to explain – make sure to get your application in as early as possible. This will give you as much time as possible to get through the investigative process before bar results come out.

3. Wait and Wait Again

It usually takes months to process a C&F application. California states their process will take at least six months, but anecdotally students have reported timeframes of eight to ten months.

Check your NCBE or state bar portal regularly for emails from your investigator. They may have follow-up questions or need additional documents. Speedy responses from you will keep your application rolling. 

If you are selected for further review, you may be asked to attend a hearing or an interview. Particularly if you are dealing with a difficult issue like a past conviction for a crime of dishonesty, it may be worth it to hire counsel or an outside advisor to assist you. Your focus should not be on disputing or explaining past decisions or adjudications, but instead on showing that you have reformed, taken responsibility, and have since made positive contributions to society.

Tip: Don't be afraid to call or email your bar association to ask about your applications status, especially if you've reached four or so months without hearing a peep or received a passing bar result. Sometimes, a well-timed phone call is what your investigator needs to move your application to the top of their stack.

4. Get Your Result

If your application has no flags, you should usually get a response within three to five months. Feel free to follow up with your investigator via email or by calling your bar association, especially if you’ve received a passing score on your bar exam and have still not heard anything about your C&F application.

Although the process of undergoing character and fitness review can be daunting, adequate preparation and planning can put your goal of practicing law well within reach.