During my third year in law school, I had to begin the process of applying to the California Bar. Whether or not I would eventually be licensed to practice law in the state depended largely on my ability to pass the dreaded California Bar Exam, where average pass rates hover between fifty and sixty percent.
However, even if I were to successfully pass the Bar Exam, I still had to convince the powers that be that I was a person of good moral character. California Bar applicants who cannot prove that they are of good moral character will not be allowed to practice law here.
So, what characteristics epitomize good moral character for California lawyers? Unfortunately, there is no set standard and each applicant is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Further, despite the name, the burden of proof is not to show good moral character but rather that you do not have bad moral character. Some issues, such as criminal history, poor financial management, and mental health issues (including alcoholism or drug addiction) may cause an in-depth study into one’s moral fiber. Thus, there are likely a number of lawyers who have neither good moral character nor bad moral character but, because proving good moral character to any degree of certainty is impossible, were given a bar card anyway.
I believe a moral character determination prior to giving an individual a license to practice law is extremely important, especially since it is almost impossible to fully regulate the character of California’s almost quarter-million attorneys after they become licensed. I wish more state bar regulators realized the value of preventing harm from happening, rather than simply reacting to unethical lawyers only after a client has been harmed.
The United States government also worries about moral character, but not with regard to US lawyers. United States immigration laws have been drafted with an eye toward ensuring that the less savory of the planet’s occupants never set foot on US soil or, if they are already here, get ejected as quickly as possible.
If you are already a United States citizen, do not fret. Your nationality cannot be stripped simply because you do not possess good moral character (unless, of course, you are a naturalized citizen and lied during the immigration process). Although we may sometimes wish to load all of the dangerous criminal US citizens on a deportation flight bound for Antartica, the Fourteenth Amendment currently does not provide for that. Instead, the United States focuses on the moral character of those who are not yet US citizens.
Read more about Drug Addiction and Good Moral Character Measures in Immigration Law