Under the Michigan Constitution, the Michigan Supreme Court has exclusive authority over the regulation of lawyers and the practice of law. This authority includes adopting rules for admission to the bar, discipline of members, and authority over the State Bar of Michigan itself.
The Supreme Court does not handle the processing of applications for admission directly, and thus has designated two entities to handle that process. The State Bar of Michigan Standing Committee on Character and Fitness, directly or through district committees, investigates the background of applicants and makes a recommendation regarding whether an applicant has the requisite character and fitness to be admitted to practice. The Board of Law Examiners conducts the bar examination and receives the recommendation of the State Bar Standing Committee regarding applicant character and fitness. It is the Board of Law Examiners that ultimately makes the decision regarding whether an applicant should be admitted to practice.
Requirements for Admission
- be 18 years old or older;
- possess good moral character, and
- have completed, before entering law school, at least 60 semester hours or 90 quarter hours toward an undergraduate degree from an accredited school or while attending an accredited junior or community college."
An "accredited" school for purposes of this Rule means a college accredited to grant collegiate degrees under the laws of the state in which the college is located, or a junior college or other school from which students are accepted as regular third-year students by any accredited college in Michigan authorized to grant collegiate degrees.
Rule 2(B) requires that bar applicants "obtain a JD degree from a reputable and qualified law school that
- is incorporated in the United States, its territories, or the District of Columbia; and
- requires for graduation 3 school years of study for full-time students, and 4 school years of study for part-time or night students. A school year must be at least 30 weeks.
A law school approved by the American Bar Association is reputable and qualified. Other schools may ask the Board of Law Examiners to approve the school as reputable and qualified."
Prior to admission by examination, an applicant must pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). The current passing scaled score is 75. Beginning with the July 2009 Michigan bar examination, applicants taking the bar examination as first-time takers must receive a scaled score of 85 on the MPRE in order to be certified by the Board. For applicants taking the July 2009 bar examination as a re-examinee or as a transferee from a prior exam, the passing scaled score will remain at 75. If such a re-examinee or transferee fails the July 2009 examination, the passing scaled MPRE score will remain at 75. Arrangements to take the MPRE shall be made directly with the Multistate Bar Examination Committee of the National Conference of Bar Examiners. The MPRE is given at various test centers around the United States (including the state of Michigan) in March, August and November.
An applicant need not have graduated from law school in order to take the MPRE and the MPRE may be taken an unlimited number of times. An applicant for admission must obtain a satisfactory score on the Michigan bar examination, or be eligible for admission without examination.
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Purpose of Background Investigations
The lawyer's license proclaims to the public that the holder has been found qualified to practice law in accordance with standards imposed by the court, and that potential clients may therefore entrust their legal problems to the lawyer. The public has no adequate independent means by which to determine the lawyer's trustworthiness, and must rely upon the certification inherent in the license.
The character and fitness investigation process is the method by which the Supreme Court attempts to ensure that an applicant currently meets minimum standards for admission to the bar. It is proper, therefore, for a state to require high standards of qualification, as long as the qualifications have a rational connection with the applicant's fitness or capacity to practice law. "Good moral character" entails honesty, respect for the rights of others and for the law, trustworthiness, reliability, and commitment to judicial process and to the efficient administration of justice.
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Types of Conduct
Although the Standing Committee on Character and Fitness bases its recommendation on an applicant's current fitness, past conduct can be an indicator of an individual's current fitness to practice. There is no single action or incident that will per se result in an applicant being denied admission to practice in Michigan. Every applicant is considered individually based upon the applicant's personal history and record. The Committee will look not only to the nature and seriousness of the conduct and the applicant's participation in the incident when it occurred, but will also note:
- the applicant's age at the time of the conduct;
- the reliability of the information concerning the conduct;
- whether the conduct is isolated or part of a pattern;
- whether there were mitigating or aggravating circumstances;
- how much time has passed since the conduct and whether there have been more recent incidents which indicate the underlying problem has not been resolved;
- what the applicant has accomplished in restitution or rehabilitation of the conduct;
- whether a licensed lawyer would be subject to discipline for the underlying conduct;
- the candor and attitude of the applicant when explaining the conduct, the degree to which the applicant takes responsibility for participating in the incident, and the materiality of any omissions, inconsistencies, or misrepresentations; and
- whether the applicant can demonstrate an understanding of how the conduct relates to fitness to be a lawyer.
What are the kinds of conduct that frequently give applicants problems? The following list is not exclusive, but includes the most common problems:
- An applicant's history of criminal conduct may reveal an inability or unwillingness to uphold and advocate the law. Crime-related conduct may show a lack of respect for authority or for the rights of other persons, inability to resolve disputes within legal parameters, poor judgment, and putting personal interests before those of others without thought of the consequences.
- Evidence of drug or alcohol abuse and evidence of mental or emotional instability which permanently, presently, or chronically impairs or distorts an applicant's judgment or behavior is relevant to whether the applicant is able to handle stress-related situations commonplace in law practice and whether the applicant is able to think clearly and analyze situations in a realistic and productive manner. An applicant's failure to acknowledge a substance abuse or disability problem, failure to seek or comply with prescribed treatment, or the inability of prescribed treatment to control or alleviate the conditions directly relate to whether the Supreme Court should certify that the applicant may represent, as a lawyer, the interests of other persons.
- An applicant's financial responsibility, handling of personal finances, history of bad debts, insufficient funds checks, failure to pay taxes, breach of fiduciary duties in employment, business or personal transactions etc., may reveal habits, traits, and judgment relevant to fitness to practice law. An applicant's motives and judgment in pursuing various forms of relief from debt may show disregard for the rights of others and disrespect for the administration of justice. If an applicant cannot responsibly handle his or her own finances, they cannot be held out as qualified to handle the moneys of other persons.
- An applicant's previous dealings with the legal system have a direct bearing on the applicant's current fitness to practice in that legal system. Litigiousness in personal matters, inability to resolve disputes in a non-confrontational manner, history of numerous traffic offenses, failure to make child support payments or honor other court orders, abusive or obstructive courtroom behavior, etc., may reflect directly upon the applicant's commitment to the administration of justice and adherence to the rule of law, and the applicant's future ability to perform as an officer of the court.
If an applicant has a question about a particular type of conduct or incident, there are various legal research tools available. Annotations in American Law Reports are particularly helpful in targeting the impact of a particular type of conduct. For a general understanding of the law of bar admissions, use the ABA/BNA Lawyers' Manual on Professional Conduct, Bureau of National Affairs. A comprehensive compilation of case law is available in the Decennial Digests from West Publishing. Numerous research materials are available addressing ethics rules and disciplinary sanctions. An applicant may also seek counsel from a lawyer of the applicant's choice with expertise in the lawyer regulatory field.
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Character & Fitness Procedure
An applicant has the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that he or she has the current good moral character and general fitness to warrant admission to the bar.
The first step in meeting this burden is to complete and return the application materials in a timely manner, to provide all information requested, and to provide full explanations. An applicant's timeliness in responding to requests reflects upon the probability the applicant will serve clients in a timely manner. An applicant's cooperation and candor in complying with investigative requests reflects upon the probability that the applicant will truthfully deal with courts and opposing parties, upon the applicant's attitude toward authority, and on whether the applicant will follow rules, laws and standards once a licensed lawyer.
The second step in meeting the burden of proof is to timely update the investigative information as circumstances change, without waiting to be asked. Applicants have a continuous obligation to update the Affidavit of Personal History so all answers continue to be true. Address or employment changes, status changes in ongoing litigation, new arrests or judgments, etc. should be promptly forwarded to the State Bar in writing. An applicant should keep a copy of the information which has been provided to the bar admission authority and review it periodically to determine whether there have been any changes that need reporting.
If the staff investigation of an applicant discloses significant adverse information, the applicant will be required to meet with a district interview panel to discuss the matter. The applicant will receive a Notice of Referral that will set forth the matters to be covered during the interview. Upon receipt of the Notice, the applicant should carefully review Rule 15, Supreme Court Rules Concerning the State Bar of Michigan, concerning the applicant's rights and the role of the District Committee. If there is anything in the Notice of Referral that the applicant does not understand, the applicant should, before the interview, seek advice from counsel or ask the District Committee member designated in the Notice. The applicant should consider the district interview as an opportunity to resolve any outstanding questions relating to the application. An applicant may wish to consider consulting with counsel of the applicant's choice before attending the interview, and may wish to have representation during the interview.
The report and recommendation of the District Committee is reviewed by the State Bar Standing Committee on Character and Fitness. The Standing Committee may endorse the recommendation, take the recommendation under advisement pending the receipt of additional information that it deems necessary, remand the recommendation to the District Committee with instructions for further proceedings, or reject the recommendation and conduct a hearing de novo. An applicant may request that the Standing Committee reconsider an adverse recommendation of a district interview panel.
If a hearing is to be held before the Standing Committee, the applicant will be sent a notice identifying the bar counsel appointed to present the adverse information concerning the applicant, as well as the presiding Committee member. The applicant and bar counsel should communicate prior to the hearing to stipulate facts or exhibits, clarify issues to be presented, and to identify and interview witnesses intended to be called. Prior to scheduling a hearing date, the applicant and bar counsel will be asked to meet with the presiding Committee member via telephone conference call to determine the time that should be allocated to hearing the matter, and to formulate the Prehearing Order that governs the scope of the proceedings. Before the meeting with the presiding member, the applicant should have determined how the applicant will present the case, what witnesses the applicant intends to call, and what exhibits the applicant intends to present. The applicant and bar counsel will generally exchange this information prior to the prehearing conference.
Standing Committee proceedings are recorded. The applicant has the right to counsel, an opportunity to subpoena witnesses, present evidence, and cross-examine witnesses. Since the applicant has the burden of showing requisite fitness, the applicant will proceed first, followed by bar counsel and questions from the members of the Standing Committee.
The Standing Committee report and recommendation are forwarded to the Board of Law Examiners. When the Standing Committee recommends against admission of the applicant, the entire record of the Standing Committee proceedings (transcript, exhibits, prehearing notice, opinion) is sent to the Board of Law Examiners. The Board of Law Examiners is not bound by the recommendation of the Standing Committee, but will review any report that shows that an applicant lacks the necessary character and fitness. The applicant may request a de novo hearing before the Board of Law Examiners.
Normally, a certification that an applicant possesses the requisite good character and fitness is valid for three years from the date of the Standing Committee decision however, the applicant has a continuing duty to update all Affidavit information until such time as the applicant is admitted to the State Bar of Michigan. The Standing Committee's certification may be revoked if merited by subsequent information.
View the Character & Fitness Process Overview PDF
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