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What if your moral character is questioned by the State Bar?

Your character -- not just your ability to pass the bar exam -- can be your biggest hurdle as you pursue your license to practice law.

For many applicants, the process of obtaining a law license is fairly routine. Other applicants are devastated to learn that all their hard work isn't enough to overcome questions about their past and their "moral fitness" to practice law. Here's what you can expect if it happens to you.

You'll be notified that there's a problem.

The first thing you can expect is a notification from the State Bar of California that you won't receive a decision in the 180-day period that's normal.

In this notification, you can expect to be asked to provide additional information. Typically, the notice will address issues that have come up in your background check. These may include criminal charges (even if they didn't result in a conviction), unpaid debts, drug or alcohol issues or accusations of academic dishonesty (like cheating).

You can use this opportunity to try to convince the Committee of Bar Examiners to approve your application by giving them as much information as possible about the situation. It's important to be honest. Your past won't weigh as heavily against you as any sign that you haven't learned from your mistakes or are unwilling to accept responsibility.

You may be asked to attend an informal conference.

If your written response isn't enough to satisfy the committee, the invitation to attend an informal conference is next.

Theoretically, declining to attend isn't supposed to count against you. In practice, it's almost guaranteed to result in a denial of your application, since you won't have any other opportunity to answer the committee's questions or reassure them about your moral character.

On the positive side, the letter will detail what the committee is concerned about. This gives you an opportunity to prepare your responses and gather any documentation you think might help sway the decision in your favor.

You can always appeal a moral character determination if the State Bar of California rules against you. However, it's far better if you can be proactive. If you are concerned that there may be a problem with your application, consider getting legal advice before you begin the application process.

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