How Bar Applicants with Criminal Records Experience the Moral Character Determination

My paper “Moral Character: Making Sense of the Experiences of Bar Applicants with Criminal Records” is out from the Manitoba Law Journal. It is an interview-based study of bar applicants, bar officials, and ethics attorneys, and the way they experience and process their pasts and presents via the California Bar’s moral character determination. The journal is open source, so you’re all welcome to read the full thing (which mostly speaks through my interviewees’ voices) but for those pressed for time, here are just a few of my findings:

  1. The most dominant emotion that arose in the interviews was shame, stemming from the juxtaposition of my interviewee’s pasts and their elite professional futures. My interviewees, most of whom had managed to
    morph their self-identity to conform to their new status as candidates for the legal profession, were reduced by the process into their former shoes as convicts and/or prisoners.
  2. The bar process exacerbated the shame. The stringent requirements of accuracy in disclosure are obtuse to the difficulties of recreating unsettled adolescent pasts, and the choreography of the hearings (no support for the applicants, cross examination styles, etc.) was described by six of my interviewees, without any prompting from me, as “the worst experience of my life.” This, mind you, included people who had done time in jail and/or juvie.
  3. There was a striking contrast between the Bar’s framing of remorse as monolithic and absolute and the much more complex ways in which people described their feelings about their past crimes. The certainty that bar officials can detect insincerity is not borne by empirical science, which casts very serious doubt on anyone’s ability to tell true from false remorse. Moreover, the mediocre community theater aspect of the hearings does not leave room for people to discuss their experiences with true insight and nuance, and they know this, and it frustrates them. Moreover, cultural performance/presentation stands in the way of communicating remorse in a way that will be properly “read” by officers of a largely white, elite, male profession.
  4. The demographic effects of professional exclusion from the bar are largely unknown because, until recently, the bar didn’t even collect data on the race/class of people and how they fared in the moral character process (we do have evidence that black male lawyers are significantly discriminated against in disciplinary proceedings.) White applicants felt that their deviance and alienation was unseen because it wasn’t part of the usual demographics boxes; applicants of color felt that they were doubly deviant and “otherized.”
  5. There is a lot of hubris, which echoes the hubris I found when I studied parole hearing, in the assumption that the key to rehabilitation is the performance of psychic excavation in front of a panel of strangers. This is nonsense from a research standpoint. We know that rehabilitation is what rehabilitation does: people who are holding down jobs and going through law school in good standing are great prospects for professional success–and they don’t necessarily overlap with people who give a convincingly weepy performance in front of 4-7 people in suits. Specifically, the bar ignores established, robust findings from life-course criminology according to which just going through and finishing law school is in itself a strong indicator of desistance.
  6. The bar frequently diagnoses substance abuse issues and forces people through substance abuse programs. The interviewees themselves report that they found some value in the programs even though they didn’t actually have a substance abuse problem. I don’t know whether this reflects people in denial about their problems, overcautiousness on the part of the bar, or both.
  7. Even as people experience joy and relief at their eventual admission to the bar, the experience continues to haunt them and adds stress to their professional and personal lives. The extent to which people are open about their backgrounds after their successful admission to the bar varies widely, with public interest lawyers much more open and corporate lawyers much more circumspect.
  8. What the bar views as uniformly negative baggage is actually a rich and important asset to the profession. My interviewees talked about their experiences as a catalyst for their decision to pursue justice for clients and about their deep understandings of injustice and oppression. But treating criminal records as liabilities, rather than resources, we are missing on an important opportunity to make the bar more receptive and service-oriented to clients who would greatly benefit from their lawyers’ empathy and compassion, through professional diversification beyond the usual census boxes and through education of the profession as a whole.
  9. Even though my interviewees regarded their law schools–and especially their faculty–as sources of empowerment and good advice, there’s more law schools can do. We can alert people, in law school application forms, that accuracy in describing their backgrounds is key to being regarded as honest and forthright later, in the bar admission process. We can give people access to their admissions package when they prep for the moral character. And we can devote a smidgeon of the immense energy we’ve devoted to lowering the bar passage rate to advocating for our students with criminal records.

CA Bar Hangs Red Scarlet Letters on Its Members

I just saw this absolutely horrible story on the Mercury news. It’s ridiculously headlined, “Is Your Lawyer a Crook?” And goes on to tell us:

What do you call up to 10 percent of lawyers in California? 

Convicted criminals. 

And that’s no rotten-lawyer joke. 

That’s the eye-popping new estimate by the agency that licenses them.
Of California’s 190,000 active attorneys, as many as 19,000 may have unreported criminal activity, from DUIs to more serious offenses, according to the State Bar of California. 

For the first time in California, all active lawyers will have to submit to having their fingerprints live-scanned or taken the old-fashioned way rby April 30 of next year under the plan the state Supreme Court is expected to approve in the coming weeks. The prints will be fed into the state Department of Justice’s database, and previous convictions will be reported to the Bar — as well as all future arrests. 

“If you have an attorney convicted, let’s say of fraud, you would want to know it,” said Leah T. Wilson, the Bar’s executive director, adding that the proposal evolved as Bar starts to “pay more attention to our public protection mission.”

Gosh, it’s almost as if Leah T. Wilson doesn’t really believe that the California criminal justice system is tasked with… what’s the word? Rehabilitation.

I speak from experience. As a law professor in California I teach hundreds of people every year. Given the high percentage of Californians that we incarcerate, inevitably some of my students have criminal records and have spent some time behind bar. As a consequence, they face an uphill battle with their moral character application, a component of their application to the bar. The application requires complete honesty, about expunged records as well as live ones, and undergoes an extreme degree of scrutiny, which people sometimes have to explain in letters and in hearings at the bar court. I’ve now testified in two bar trials and written four letters of recommendations on behalf of people with criminal records who want to be admitted or readmitted to the bar.

The bias, stigma, and ignorance–not just of the public, but of the bar itself–is breathtaking. At the bar trials in which I testified, I experienced what could only be described as a mediocre community theatre production of a morality tale. Grown people, who have matured and learned from their mistakes, have to recite their contrition. Parole and gubernatorial decisions to release people after decades of introspection and remorse are doubted and ridiculed. Skeletons are dragged out of closets to haunt people for mistakes they did as juveniles.

Honestly, after undergoing the tribulations of punishment in California, sometimes the wringer of repeated parole hearings (and gubernatorial reversals,) and on top of that, the moral character ordeal at the bar, anyone left standing is bound to be so much more thoughtful, reflective, and humble, than various so-called “moral characters” without a criminal record. Anyone with a substance abuse problem would have had time to sort it out and would be so much more mature about it than some so-called “moral character” who is still drinking or snorting, but whose record is squeaky clean. I would so much prefer to have someone from the former category as my lawyer than someone from the latter. But the general public, who is woefully misinformed by articles such as this one about who is a “crook” and who isn’t, would not necessarily make that choice, and that is a horrible injury to do to someone, not to mention a horrible privacy violation.

This also raises the issue of the elitism of the profession. We disproportionately incarcerate folks of fewer means and darker skins. As a consequence, our population of lawyers with criminal records is likely to include a disproportionate percentage of people who came to the profession from humble backgrounds. If we also put additional barriers on their gainful employment in the way of revealing their personal and private histories to potential clients, we are just deepening that elitism.

The problem, of course, is not only with this atrocious decision of the CA bar to injure its own members; it is with the kind of journalistic reporting that makes this into salacious gossip material. Who the hell uses the word “crook” as a euphemism for a criminal record, like something out of a Damon Runyon short story? And who the hell uses lawyer jokes to talk about people who have gone through so much to redeem themselves and find a professional future?

Does rehabilitation actually mean anything to the bar, when it decides to admit folks back to its ranks and then backstabs them by reducing their employment prospects? This is not a move that “protects the public.” This is elitism, bigotry, and ignorance.