Reveal It, Don’t Conceal It!
Disclosure Requirements for Bar Applicants
By Hanna Borsilli
When I started law school, I knew that studying for the bar exam would be difficult, but I assumed registering for the exam would be relatively simple. However, I quickly learned that applying for the bar is an involved process when I began to register for the July 2018 Ohio bar exam during my second year of law school. Through the amount of information required to register surprised me at first, the thoroughness of the process makes sense.
To register as a candidate for the Ohio bar, applicants must graduate from college and law school, pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination and bar association, and satisfy the character and fitness requirements established by the Ohio Supreme Court. 1 Although completing the character and fitness portion of the application process does not test an applicant’s intellectual acumen, it is arguably the most important requirement to practice law because of the unique nature of legal services. Good character, trustworthiness, and integrity are essential to legal practice because clients trust lawyers to manage highly sensitive and personal information.2 Given the importance of character to the practice of law, it is not surprising that the Ohio bar application requires applicants to make extensive disclosures regarding their past conduct. These disclosure requirements extend to every instance of an applicant’s involvement in legal proceedings, including overturned or expunged criminal convictions.
Ohio Supreme Court Rules for Admission to the Bar
Ohio Supreme Court Rule I Section 2 (B)(6) requires applicants to submit a “character questionnaire” as part of the bar registration process. 3 This questionnaire, along with an in-person interview conducted by members of the Bar Admissions Committee, gauges whether applicants possess the character necessary to practice law. 4 Ohio Supreme Court Rule I, Section 11 (D)(1) notes that an applicant’s failure to provide complete information regarding previous convictions, including “expungements and juvenile court proceedings,” may disqualify an applicant from admission to the bar. 5 The Supreme Court Rules do not explicitly require applicants to disclose overturned convictions; however, questions contained in the character questionnaire impose additional disclosure requirements, including an implicit requirement to disclose overturned convictions.
Ohio Bar Application Character Questionnaire
The character questionnaire is one of several documents an applicant must submit to register for the bar exam.6 The 33-page questionnaire inquires about an applicant’s prior residences, employment history, financial obligations, current and previous associations, and character and fitness. The character and fitness. The character and fitness section of the questionnaire begins with directions, appearing in bold lettering at the top of the page, which state that an applicant must disclose his or her involvement in “all proceedings,” and “must report all matters, even if they were expunged***or dismissed[.]”7 The instructions also include a citation to In Re Watson, an Ohio Supreme Court case which held that bar applicants must disclose their involvement in any legal proceeding on their applications, “regardless of expungements, bond forfeitures, dismissals or similar terminations.”8 The all-encompassing language in the Watson holding (e.g. “similar terminations”) demonstrates that the outcome of a legal proceeding does not impact an applicant’s obligation to disclose that proceeding.
Question 21 of the questionnaire asks “Have you ever been cited, arrested, charged, or convicted for any violation of any law including as a juvenile (except traffic violations)?”9 To fully answer this question, an applicant must list all convictions they received. The directions specifically require applicants to disclose expunged or dismissed convictions; however, expunged and dismissed convictions serve only as two example of the types of matters that must be disclosed, not an exhaustive list of disclosure requirements.10 The citation to In Re Watson, coupled with the use of broad language in the directions (“all proceedings” and “all matters”), demonstrates that the outcome of a matter is irrelevant for disclosure purposes. An overturned conviction is still a conviction, so an applicant must disclose overturned convictions in their answer to question 21 on the character questionnaire. Though the questionnaire requires disclosure of overturned conviction, an overturned conviction is not likely to disqualify an applicant from admission to the bar.
Bar examiners consider a variety of factors to determine whether an applicant’s previous conduct demonstrates a present moral deficiency sufficient to preclude an applicant from admission to the bar.11 For example, bar examiners consider an applicant’s age at the time of the conduct, seriousness of the conduct, circumstances surrounding the conduct, and subsequent rehabilitation.12 Even convicted felons are not automatically precluded from bar admission.13 However, failing to disclose a prior conviction will greatly impact the admission committee’s evaluation of the applicant. Providing false or purposefully evasive answers about a conviction will greatly impact the admission committee’s evaluation of the applicant. Providing false or purposefully evasive answers about a conviction demonstrates that an applicant lacks reliability and honesty, and bar examiners give considerable weight to such negative character traits in their evaluations.14
Potential Consequences of Nondisclosure
Concealing or misrepresenting required information on a bar application may forever prevent an applicant from admission to the bar.15 Additionally, failing to disclose required information may also jeopardize an applicant’s ability to graduate from law school.
Virtually all law schools require students to uphold an honor code. These codes are enacted to promote integrity and punish dishonest conduct.16 To illustrate, at my school, the Dickinson School of Law, potential sanctions for honor code violations include reporting misconduct to bar admission authorities and expulsion.17 My honor code not only prohibits academic dishonesty but also prohibits the misrepresentation “of any material fact in order to gain *** a benefit or service to which the student would otherwise not be entitled.” 18 Admission to the Ohio bar is a benefit conferred only to qualifying applicants. Thus, if members of my school’s Honor Committee learned that I misrepresented a prior conviction on my bar application, I may face potential expulsion for violating the honor code. Since graduation from an accredited law school is a requirement for admission to the Ohio bar,19 honor code violations may also foreclose an applicant’s eligibility to apply for admission.
Hanna Borsilli graduated from the Ohio State University, where she earned degrees in both Internation Business and Spanish. She is a current 3L at the Dickinson School of Law. After graduation, Hanna will serve as a judicial clerk in the Eastern District of Michigan. At the conclusion of her clerkship, Hanna hopes to return to Northeast Ohio and pursue a career in trial work. She has been a CMBA member since 2015 and her profile can be viewed here.