Florida Bar Admission Proceedings: Why You Need Counsel
“You have the right to an attorney.” -Miranda warning
“You have the right to be represented by counsel.” – Notice of Rights and Responsibilities before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners
When you apply for admission to The Florida Bar you are opening up every aspect of your life for investigation and scrutiny by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners (BOBE). Should you retain experienced counsel to assist you in completing the application for admission to The Florida Bar and to represent you when called to appear before the BOBE for an investigative or formal hearing? Yes!
The bar application process is neither a civil, criminal, nor administrative matter. In hearings before the BOBE, whether investigative or formal, the technical rules of evidence do not apply. (See Rules 3-22 and 3-32.2, Rules of the Supreme Court Relating to Admissions to the Bar (“Rules”) As I tell my clients, a hearing before the BOBE is unlike any other hearing you will ever experience.
Many people confuse the Florida Board of Bar Examiners with The Florida Bar. The BOBE “is an administrative agency of the Supreme Court of Florida created by the court to implement the rules relating to bar admission.” Rule 1-13, Rules. While The Florida Bar is “an official arm of the court” (Introduction to The Rules Regulating The Florida Bar), the bar plays no role in the bar admission process. One way to look at is the BOBE is the bouncer at the door of The Florida Bar deciding who gets to enter the club.
The BOBE has two main functions: (1) to prepare, monitor and grade the bar examination and (2) to ensure that persons admitted to The Florida Bar have good moral character. An applicant may have the highest grades in law school and a perfect score on the bar examination, but if they do not meet the character and fitness requirements that person will not be admitted to The Florida Bar. Many times I receive calls from law students or out-of-state lawyers who want to know if something from their past may keep them from being admitted to The Florida Bar. As the Rules provide, “a record manifesting a lack of honesty, trustworthiness, diligence, or reliability…may constitute a basis for denial of admission. The revelation or discovery of any of the following may be cause for further inquiry before the BOBE recommends whether [someone] possesses the character and fitness to practice law:
a. unlawful conduct;
b. academic misconduct;
c. making or procuring any false or misleading statement or omission of relevant information…;
d. misconduct in employment;
e. acts involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation;
f. abuse of legal process;
g. financial irresponsibility;
h. neglect of professional obligations;
i. violation of an order of a court;
j. evidence of mental or emotional instability;
k. evidence of drug or alcohol dependency;
l. denial of admission to the bar in another jurisdiction on character and fitness grounds;
m. disciplinary action by a lawyer disciplinary agency or other professional disciplinary agency of any jurisdiction; or
n. any other conduct that reflects adversely on the character or fitness of the applicant.
As you can see, the list is exhaustive with both general and specific areas of inquiry. During the nearly 30 years I have represented applicants before the board, I have had clients who were called for a hearing based upon every one of the areas on the list.
Keep No Secrets
When you fill out your bar application you need to be aware of the areas of concern listed above. It is critical to make sure your application is correct, current, and complete. If you’re not sure whether or not an incident from your past should be disclosed to the BOBE, do some background checking on yourself. Speak to people in your social network - parents, friends, neighbors, and past employers. You must also keep in mind there is a continuing obligation to keep the responses on your application current, complete and correct by filing an amendment within 30 days of any incident which must be reported to the BOBE.
The primary purposes of the character and fitness requirement are to protect the public and safeguard the judicial system. (Rule 1-14.1) The BOBE takes this purpose statement seriously. For this reason, it is always more prudent to disclose something not required than to fail to disclose even a minor event. Many applicants have gone from an investigative hearing to a formal hearing, or have been denied admission to The Florida Bar for failure to disclose a matter which should have been disclosed on the bar application.
Why Hire Counsel?
An attorney with experience before the BOBE can help you convince the board you currently possess good moral character regardless of what you may have done in the past. You need counsel with significant experience—someone who has seen hundreds of bar applications— and can help you check, check, and double-check the accuracy of your application. Finally, you need counsel who is familiar with the Rules, the personalities of the board members and board staff, and who is respected by the board.