Please note, what you are about to read can be daunting and disheartening to an applicant attempting to become a licensed attorney in the State Bar of Michigan. With that said, the following information is as real as it gets. There is no sugar coating here. If you want to know how it is, then keep reading. The State Bar of Michigan has a duty to protect the interests of the citizens of this state who wish to engage in legal services with an attorney; thus, their job is one of respect, dignity, and honor. As an applicant you are asking to enter into a “kingdom” that requires the utmost display of ethics and character. Thus, the State Bar of Michigan must do its absolute best to ensure everyone it admits to the practice of law has met its standard. It’s a standard we all should be proud of, respect, and be cautious of. I say this because the practice of law provides you with the ability or inability to help people in a time of need who may be in their most vulnerable state. So if you are not fit to practice law, how can you be fit to legally help someone who entrusts you with their life, their finances, and their dilemmas? Why else do you hire an attorney?
Open, Honest and Forthright:
These 3 words are the most important words you can ever learn as a law student, as an attorney, and as an individual. These three words can either make you an excellent practitioner as well as lead a truthful life, or if you choose not to exactly follow these words, you can easily enter into an abysmal path.
These words seem so simple, yet every day you are placed in a position where you may question how “open” you are about your life and your past. There are times in life when you don’t feel compelled to be completely “honest” about an answer you provide, even though you may not be lying at all. Lastly, there are times you are not as direct or forthright as you choose to be when dealing with someone. If these three words are not something you fully understand and practice daily, then you are not fit to practice law in the State of Michigan.
But that’s not all. In the State of Michigan, besides the necessity of having to pass the Michigan BAR Exam as well as graduate from an ABA accredited law school or be licensed in another state, everyone must be reviewed by the Standing Committee on Character and Fitness. This is better known as The Character and Fitness Committee. Ultimately, the job of The Character and Fitness Committee is to ensure that ALL applicants meet the requirements and standards to practice law. This standard can be summarized as having the proper character and moral fitness; more specifically, the standard is CURRENT character and fitness. If it is deemed you do possess this standard, the Supreme Court Rules for the State Bar of Michigan Rule 15 Sec.1, (5)(a) state:
“An applicant shall be recommended favorably by State Bar staff without referral to committee when investigation of all past conduct discloses no significant adverse factual information.”
If not, then the process begins. The State Bar of Michigan recognizes people make mistakes. Nobody is perfect. An applicant may have had some legal issues in the past; whether it is a criminal past, personal or academic issues, litigation involvement, or financial issues and struggles. Each and every one of these issues can be considered as a question of an applicant’s character. Furthermore, the proper disclosure of these matters is just as crucial if not even more important, when initially completing your Affidavit of Personal History (APH) when applying for the BAR. In totality, the lack of disclosure and prior candor issues can result in a process that can put a damper on your passing BAR results and Juris Doctor ultimately delaying your ability to practice law in the State of Michigan. However, the most important thing to keep in mind is that what matters most is your CURRENT character and fitness, and what you have done to be proactive in rehabilitating yourself or learning from your prior conducts that displays you are fit to practice law in the State of Michigan.
How It All Starts:
Every single character and fitness matters starts with your actual application to the State Bar of Michigan. This again is commonly known as your Affidavit of Personal History (APH). This is the first time you will be “judged” by the State Bar of Michigan. Your candor and honesty in this application will set the stage.
This is a very lengthy application. On its face it may seem simple, but know that it is not something that should be rushed or considered something simple. This application needs to be completed in a very delicate manner. The State Bar of Michigan wants to know everything about you: Your personal history; your financial history; your criminal history; your employment history; your residence history; your mental health history; and much more.
Once you have compiled all of this information, and provided exhibits that may go along with them and proper disclosures associated therewith, you send your application in for review. It is then reviewed by the State Bar and investigators who work for the State Bar. Their job is to go through your application with a fine-toothed comb. Again, remember that any answer you provide that requires an explanation (i.e. you had Minor in Possession of Alcohol when you were in college) in which you did not provide an Open, Honest, and Forthright manner, may most likely be investigated by the State Bar and can be flagged as an issue. Once it is flagged as an issue, the investigator will raise this as an issue to your local District Committee. This committee is now the start of a process that could possibly be a serious impairment to your ability to practice law.
The District Committee is the first of potentially 4 different levels that you will be dealing with in order to prove that you currently possess the requisite standard of being fit to practice law in the State of Michigan.
District Committee: 1st level
Standing Committee: 2nd Level
Board of Law Examiners: 3rd Level (The BLE is the actual final authority you need to approve your application before you can become licensed)
The Michigan Supreme Court: 4th Level (It is very rare to ever reach this point)
This initial committee is comprised of 3 members who are attorneys and are actually volunteer positions. This is the least formal of the committee hearings. It is typically held locally in the county in which you live. There is no court reporter, but the hearing is recorded. There is also no State Bar attorney or State Bar investigator present as there are in the other hearings. The committee members’ job is to question you regarding your application and the initial issues raised by the State Bar. Seems simple enough right? WRONG. Without the proper preparation and understanding of what the issues you are facing really are, this could be the beginning of a long and drawn out process that can affect your life for years and years to come. There is a reason they have flagged you, and have spent time and resources on your application.
Ultimately, the burden of proof (by clear and convincing evidence) is on the applicant to prove they are morally fit to practice law. If there is a one percent doubt in the committee’s mind that you don’t meet this burden, then you have not met your burden. The District Committee will then conclude its hearing. They will issue a report. This report is considered their “recommendation”. This is NOT a binding report; meaning it does not bind the Board of Law Examiners to perform as it states.
Received a Positive Recommendation?! Don’t be too excited! It’s far from over. Once the District Committee has issued this recommendation to the Standing Committee, the Standing Committee reviews the report in detail. So what they can decide:
1) Adopt this recommendation and then send to the Board of Law Examiners for their review thereof (who then can either adopt the Standing Committee’s approval of the District Committee’s positive recommendation or flat out deny it)
2) Adopt the District Committee’s recommendation, but contingent upon having another hearing in front of the Standing Committee. Who then can decide for themselves and still decide to deny you.
3) Completely Deny the District Committee recommendation.
The Standing Committee hearing:
This hearing is much different than a District Committee hearing. This panel is made of 3 attorneys who are also volunteers. There is a court reporter present. There is State Bar counsel present. There is the State Bar investigator present assisting State Bar counsel in presenting their case. It is the job of the State Bar counsel and investigator to ultimately do their best to present a case against you attempting to prove you DO NOT have the character and fitness to practice law in the State of Michigan. Please be advised this is a very adversarial process at this point, and you are on trial with really nobody rooting for you to win. There is nothing fun about it. This hearing is basically a battle zone. There are opening statements, hours of questioning, witnesses called form both sides, rebuttals, and closing remarks. You WILL be treated as a HOSTILE witness. One of the MOST important things to note is that the Michigan Rules of Evidence DO NOT apply in these hearings. There can be no lawful objections made. So basically everything goes. In other words the State Bar and the committee members can ask you ANYTHING they want…ANYTHING!
During this hearing, you will be examined and reexamined. You have the right to represent yourself or be represented by an attorney. The Chairperson of the Committee is the one who is in charge of leading the proceedings.
It is at his discretion to allow certain documents, witnesses, or evidence to be used. This hearing can be as short as an hour or as long as an entire day. The hearing is then concluded and the Standing Committee usually meets to inform you of what they would like to do.
Received a Positive Recommendation?! Don’t be too excited! It’s still not over! Once the hearing has concluded, the Standing Committee can do one of the following:
1) Issue a positive recommendation that requires approval by the Board of Law Examiners. The Board of Law Examiners then can adopt this recommendation, or again deny it. Both are common.
2) The Standing Committee can ask you to just leave and will send you a copy of their opinion.
3) The Standing Committee can deny you completely; hence you can appeal to the Board of Law Examiners.
4) The Standing Committee can inform you they will be issuing a positive recommendation with certain contingencies. i.e. provide them with certain information, or complete certain requirements and present it back to them within a certain date for them to further review. After all this option 1-3 will then be observed.
The Board of Law Examiners:
This is your final step before your potential appeal rights to the Michigan Supreme Court. This Honorable board consists of members of the State Bar who all have resumes that are second to none. Usually current judges, past judges, and very successful and intelligent attorneys (not to take away from the other committee’s level of judgment and expertise).
The members of the Board of Law Examiners are appointed by the Governor of Michigan on nomination by the Supreme Court. These are 5 year terms and are paid positions. These are the people that write your BAR exam questions and grade your BAR exam. If you get this far, you definitely want to be prepared and ready to go. Because if you get denied here, it makes it very difficult to then become licensed. Usually, the Board of Law Examiners’ denial becomes final, and an applicant can only reapply after a 2 year waiting period. At this point, typically your BAR exam scores will expire. Thus if you received a passing score, they will no longer be valid as they are typically good for 3 years. There have been some occasions in which exceptions to these rules were made.
The Board of Law Examiners hearings are usually held in Lansing during the BAR exams. They do conduct other hearings throughout the year as well. This hearing is very similar to that of the Standing Committee, except that you have 5 members on the panel instead of 3. The Board conducts its hearing in a very similar way. Once it has concluded, they will either deny your application, approve it, or place some further contingency (which is quite rare).
What You Are Thinking Right Now: This is the reality of it. Many law students can be tied up in this process for years- From 1 year to even 10 years. It can be an excruciating process.
The Bright Side:
I hope I have put some fear in you because the truth is the only way to be able to make the best decisions. The bright side is that there is a positive end to this if you get caught in it. The bottom line is to be prepared the right way for the hearings. Through counseling, financial relief, testimony, witnesses, therapy, and other methods, you can become licensed. But the bottom line best witness in your application is YOU! It is all dependent on hard you work to change your life and your past to have the current character and fitness to practice law. AS complicated as all that above seems, it can be that simple.
Having been through this process, it is one that is humbling in nature. As little as your mistakes may seem, others may judge them differently. And as they should; being that you are trying to become an attorney at law.
I assure you and stand confident that very few attorneys, if any in the entire State of Michigan understand and know this process the way I do. Embrace your past everyday as this will be your golden ticket. The Law Firm of Avis Choulagh will provide you with the best possible representation in these matters. You will be prepared and ready to go before you walk into any of the hearings. With my legal staff and experience, I will guide you and counsel you through this difficult time in your life. It can be draining, but with the right attitude, proper execution, and sincere level of commitment, you too will soon be an Esquire.
Please contact my office for a free legal consultation.