If you want to practice law in California, you need to do three things. You need to finish law school, pass the Bar, and convince the State Bar of your good moral character.

For most people, their moral character assessment isn’t a big concern. While few applicants clear their assessment at the first stage, the vast majority pass in time. But what about your past indiscretions? Do they make you a bad person? Will they disqualify you? Just how does the State Board view moral character, anyhow?

The question of good moral behavior

Countless philosophers, theologians and spiritual gurus have explored the question of what it means to be a good person. However, as an aspiring attorney, you’re not likely concerned with the idea of “moral luck” or the difference between your moral and non-moral virtues. You want to know what the State Bar considers in its determination of moral character.

To that end, the State Bar’s Admission Rules identify several areas of concern, including:

  • Honesty and candor
  • Respect for the law
  • Respect for other people’s rights
  • Fiscal responsibility
  • Trustworthiness

Notably, the State Bar’s language doesn’t really focus on the ways you must support your assertions. Instead, it screens your application to look for any concerns. The assessment is less about proving your “goodness” and more about weeding out potential bad apples.

How to complete the moral character application

Given that the State Bar focuses more on concerns about your indiscretions than on proof of your goodness, you might think about making some choice omissions. But that would almost certainly be a mistake.

The State Bar screens each application carefully, and any hint that you’ve concealed past troubles could lead to denial for a lack of candor. You want to be forthcoming, but if you’re concerned about your responses, you can also seek advice for tactful disclosure. As much as it’s looking for information about past troubles, the State Bar wants to see signs that you’ve grown:

  • If you’ve ever been convicted of an offense, you want to show how you’ve reformed
  • If you’ve struggled with drug abuse, you want proof of your rehabilitation
  • If you’ve filed for bankruptcy, you want to show how you’re now financially responsible

The more serious the past issue, the more the State Bar will look for proof that you’ve changed. They want to see that you’ve done enough good to offset your past mistake.

There’s no easy trick

If you have a record of past arrests, addiction or discipline, you’ll need to be honest. If you’re struggling with how to approach these issues, an attorney experienced with moral character determinations may be able to help.

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