Moral Character: Making Sense of the Experiences of Bar Applicants with Criminal Records
Manitoba Law Review, Forthcoming
24 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2019 Last revised: 23 Oct 2019
Date Written: August 21, 2019
Most literature on reentry and rehabilitation experiences addresses the basic needs of people with criminal records: finding shelter and employment. This Article shines a light on a gap in this literature - the unique situation of justice-involved individuals seeking admission to elite professions. The article focuses on applicants to the California Bar, who, in addition to passing the Bar Exam must also submit a moral character application. I begin with a legal analysis of the Bar rules concerning moral character and the malleability of terms such as "insight" and "remorse" as defined and analyzed in case law. I then provide an empirical lens on the moral character process through in-depth interviews with bar applicants who went through the process.
The empirical study reveals deep-seated shame among applicants, which the moral character exacerbates and distorts. The "informal hearing" process is revealed to be a deeply distressing experience, invoking issues from the individuals' pasts and placing them under an exacting lens. Moreover, as I argue, the Bar's policy toward moral character flies in the face of robust empirical findings about desistance from crime, exhibits considerable conceit about the committee's ability to detect insight and remorse, and seriously harms the quest for more diversity in the legal profession.
The article ends with an analysis of the implications of this process and with practical recommendations to law schools and to the Bar regarding moral character applications.
Keywords: moral character, bar, legal profession, legal education, criminal records, rehabilitation, reentry
JEL Classification: K
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation