Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Even though I teach a two credit class to 3Ls for early bar preparation, as Director of the Bar Studies Program at Seattle U, I also need to make sure that students unable (or unwilling) to take my class get the same important information regarding the bar exam before they graduate. Therefore, I provide several workshops during spring semester introducing them to the bar exam and the bar application process.
As weknow, the bar exam application process is time consuming and can pose significant challenges for some students. However, without our prodding, some students do not realize this until the eleventh hour. In light of the AALS presentation “Character and Fitness: To Disclose or Not to Disclose, That is the Question” and the ensuing discussion regarding our role as academic support professionals and the counseling we give to students, it seems necessary for all schools to adopt a similar workshop revolving exclusively around the bar application process.
While meeting with every 3L to discuss their bar application is nearly impossible, holding a short workshop for all 3Ls is easily doable and accomplishes the same goal. Providing accurate information regarding the application process and deadlines and conveying the importance of full disclosure, serve several objectives. Students will be more apt to meet the application deadlines (and not line up outside your office the day they are due), feel supported by their law school during this somewhat tedious process (a good way to end their law school career), and to understand that professional ethics is not just a class they took their second or third year of law school (instead they are standards by which they will be called to live by…starting now). Above all, students in attendance with additional questions or past indiscretions will know whether to schedule a one on one appointment to discuss their application further.
Essentially, the best advice we can give our students is to be open and honest when completing their bar application. During the AALS presentation, Margaret Fuller Corneille, Director of the Minnesota Board of Law Examiners, stated that successful applicants are candid, show no malice when mistakes are made on their law school/bar exam applications, accept responsibility for their past conduct, and show that they have made positive social contributions. Bar Associations act at as “Gate Keepers” to the legal profession. In this capacity, they are determining whether an applicant has the ability to handle the responsibilities of being a lawyer. Instilling the notion that candor on their applications reflects on their present moral character is crucial.
Our role as educators in this process is significant. However, this role may vary depending on how you define your purpose and what your institution determines to be their responsibility. Questions presented by Susan Saab Fortney, Interim Dean and Professor of Law at Texas Tech University School of Law, at the AALS presentation are good starting points as you (and your institution) consider how to characterize this role. I have paraphrased some of Professor Fortney’s thoughtful questions below.
- Are we partners with the bar associations when it comes to character and fitness determinations?
- Should law schools be “Gate Keepers” to the profession?
- Should we be concerned with our law school’s reputation regarding the character and fitness of our students?
- Should law schools take the “ostrich approach” with the character and fitness issues of their students?
While all valid and though provoking, some of us may have differing opinions as to whether we should squarely align ourselves with the bar associations or whether our main goal is to be a “gate keeper” to the profession. David Baum, Assistant Dean in the Office of Student Affairs at Michigan Law School and a member of the State Bar of Michigan’s Standing Committee on Character and Fitness, raised equally compelling issues at AALS that uniquely influence our perspective regarding these bar application disclosures. He acknowledged that in our roles as educators, it would be difficult to engage in open conversations with our students if we were required to disclose every detail discussed within said conversations. He further stated, that these conversations are the vehicles by which we deliver sound advice and help shape the personal and professional development of our students. In turn, as Dean Baum points out, if we are obligated to disclose these details, a negative chilling effect could result and students in need of support, advice, and possibly further professional help may not reach out for it.
Contemplating the questions posed and viewpoints presented during the AALS presentation, as well as, considering your state bar’s requirements and your institution’s policies, should help you create a helpful and informative bar application workshop for your students. During the workshop, I walk through the application and instructions while pointing out areas where students typically have detailed questions or concerns. For example: how to request an accommodation; how to list past traffic infractions/citations/criminal charges or convictions, and how to disclose treatment for mental impairment or alcohol or drug dependency.
Although carrying this out in a group setting can be challenging, I have found that the group dynamic diffuses the potential stigma that a student may feel as a result of an affirmative answer to one of these questions listed on the bar application. Once again, this workshop opens up the opportunity for students to see me as a trustworthy resource and to understand the importance of taking this step seriously. I believe there is a way to be a dedicated advocate and guide for our students while maintaining the integrity of the legal profession…finding that middle ground is up to you or your institution to determine.