Earlier this month, the ABA Journal reported that students at top law schools had pledged to improve mental health and wellness on their campuses. In their letter, the students stressed how the character and fitness requirement questions on the bar could encourage self-treatment with substance abuse. They also argued that they could keep law students struggling with mental health from seeking help or treatment.
Julie Ketover, a contributor at U.S. News & World Report, recently discussed how law students should address bar exam, fitness requirments.
“The nature of the character and fitness component of the exam varies, but it typically covers a few key areas, including lack of candor, the existence of a criminal record, untreated mental illness and substance abuse, and financial irresponsibility,” Ketover says.
What Is The ‘Character And Fitness Requirement’?
According to the ABA, the Character and Fitness Requirement of the bar asks grads two questions:
1. Is there anything in my past (or my present) that might bring my character and fitness into question?
2. If my character is in question, what can I do now to begin to rehabilitate my reputation?
In regards to mental illness and substance abuse, the ABA highlights that the most common mistake among grads suffering from these issues is not asking for help.
Ketover says it’s better for law students struggling with mental health issues to seek for help rather than stay quiet.
“If you struggle with mental illness or substance abuse, seeking treatment is a critical step you can take to protect the integrity of your future career,” she says. “Taking responsibility for your life also shows strength of character. The mere existence of a problem in these areas is not, in and of itself, dire. However, the failure to seek treatment is highly problematic.”
Law school applications also require prospective students to disclose their potential criminal history accurately. For law students with a history, Ketover advises them to “over-disclose.”
“Inaccurate representation in this part of the application could affect your law school candidacy and potentially prevent bar admission, if a character and fitness investigation yields discrepancies or inaccuracies in your application materials,” she says. “Aside from the disclosure question, you should portray yourself honestly in all other application materials.”
Ketover adds that it’s important for students to show how they’ve taken the steps to rehabilitate themselves.
“Highlight, for example, your commitment to community service and any other positive social contributions you have made that demonstrate remorse, responsibility and rehabilitation,” she says. “Show that you’ve taken decisive action to course correct and distance yourself from prior misconduct.”
Financial responsibility is another key area that bar examiners will evaluate. In particular, Ketover says, bar examiners will inspect credit reports, income tax returns, records relating to any lawsuits, and failures to live up to financial obligations.
For law students, this means it’s important to ensure financial responsibility by actively checking credit history and correcting inaccuracies. Instances such as debt, bankruptcy, failure to pay child support, and failure to file or pay taxes are all examples of financial irresponsibility that Ketover says applicants should watch and take steps to fix if any apply.
“As is the case for the other character and fitness areas, historical financial irresponsibility is far less potentially damaging than inaction to rectify it,” she says. “Put differently, no matter how your circumstances have unfolded, the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
Social Media Image
The internet age has given everyone a platform to voice themselves. But with that voice, comes some responsibility. In terms of the bar, law students should project a positive, appropriate image of themselves on social media, Ketover says.
“Your social media behavior and presence should not raise any concerns about your character, professionalism, integrity or overall fitness to join the community of legal professionals,” she says. “To the extent there are any red flags, such as an ill-advised photograph or a misguided comment, clean up your image now.”
The character, fitness requirements of the bar are only a portion of what’s required of aspiring law students, but they are integral components that reflect a law student’s character.
“Since applicants must present themselves as fit for the study of law, this is a perfect opportunity to reflect on any issues that relate to character and fitness,” Ketover says.