Should This Person Be Permitted to Become an Attorney?

Every state requires a candidate to pass two hurdles to be admitted to the bar:  the bar exam and then the moral fitness and character test.

Let me pose two hypotheticals, with variations on the second, and you tell me whether the candidate passes the moral fitness and character test.

At the end, I will state my position and the court’s decision on which the hypos were loosely based, but I want your thoughts free from mine, so please, no cheating.

1)  This person took some time off between college and law school.  During the period in between, he fell behind on his car and student loans.  He could have satisfied the loans if he really tried, but instead he filed for bankruptcy.  The bankruptcy judge ruled he was entitled to a discharge of his student loans.  With a clean financial slate, he applies to law school, graduates, and passes the bar.  Is the candidate unfit to be an attorney for getting his loans discharged, not because he had to, but because he could?

2)  This candidate committed homicide 20 years ago.  She was found guilty of manslaughter and served her sentence.  Since then, she has committed to serving the public through community outreach programs.  In fact, public service is how she made a living until she decided to go to law school when she determined she can be more effective in helping people if she was a lawyer.  Does her taking of another’s life several decades ago disqualify her as an attorney?

2a)  What if she had been found guilty of first degree, premeditated murder?

2b)  What if she had been found guilty of only manslaughter, but she does not have a record of serving the community and instead simply has a clean record since serving her time?

2c)  What if she had been found guilty of first degree murder and she simply has a clean record, with no particular evidence of public service?


1)  It’s a close call, but I will deny admission.  To be sure, the candidate did nothing illegal.  To the contrary, the bankruptcy discharge suggests he was legally entitled to file for bankruptcy.  But people must be able to distinguish between “could” and “should.”  Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  This is particularly true of attorneys, who are often placed in pecarious circumstances where there are a lot of “could”s but far less “should”s.  The choice to discharge a legal obligation to pay back the money instead of making every effort to actually pay it back evidences moral inclinations I am simply uncomfortable with for a fellow attorney.  In the real life case, the court denied admission as well.

2)  I will grant admissions.  Whatever moral terpitude the candidate suffered from, she has paid for it with interest by serving her sentence and committing to the community.  It is people like her, who are committed to serving for the needs and justice for others, that are needed in the legal profession.  So much time has passed, we can say with hindsight that, while tragic, her checkered past was not all for naught.  It has made her a better person.  The court, though, denied admissions here as well.

2a)  Ditto.  Manslaughter or murder, the legal profession is better off with her in it rather than out of it.

2b)  In this case, I would deny.  Admittance to the bar is a privilege, not a right.  While serving her sentence has allowed her to rejoin society, she has not shown how or why her past indiscretion should be overlooked.  Attorneys must always behave with civility, dignity, integrity and composure.  Whatever led the person to commit manslaughter, it wasn’t those attributes.

2c)  Ditto, for the same reason.

Do you agree?


2 Responses to “Should This Person Be Permitted to Become an Attorney?”

  1. 1 rattoch April 9, 2009 at 11:52 am

    I would grant the women who commited manslaughter. Granted she did a terrible act but she seemed to learn from it made society better. First, I would have to know eactly how she participated in the murder, was she in a car accident and killed someone by mistake or what have you. If it was definately manslaughter with no gray area I would let her be a lawyer. I think people should be given a second chance if they have a proven record of trying to be a better person after the tragedy of the crime they committed.

    • 2 joesas April 10, 2009 at 11:24 am

      I think your position is relatively uncontroversial. Assuming that she committed, say, negligent homicide through a DWI, there are worse things a person can do.

      What if, though, she killed someone in cold blood? Will that change your mind?

      And I’m more interested in your thoughts on the guy who discharged his debt.

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