« PreviousContinue »
PRACTICAL METHODS OF ASCERTAINING THE MORAL CHARACTER OF CANDIDATES FOR
ADMISSION TO THE BAR.
OF NEW YORK CITY.
No subject can more worthily engage the attention of this Association and of the various local bar associations than that of ascertaining the moral character of candidates for admission to the Bar. Considering the confidential relation between attorney and client and the extent to which the interests of the community at large are dependent upon the honor and integrity of the legal profession, it becomes a truism that the problem of passing upon the moral qualifications of candidates for admission is one closely affecting the public welfare. The admission of new members to the profession places a grave responsibility not only upon the attorney admitted but upon those who sanction his admission. By the act of conferring the privileges of an attorney at law, the state itself, to an extent, vouches for both the legal attainments and the moral character of the man, and holds him out to the community as one in whom confidence may be placed. Surely this stamp of approval should not be lightly bestowed, and when through indifference and insufficient investigation it is misplaced, the result approaches a calamity. The old maxim that prevention is worth more than cure is here especially in point. The time to take most effective action for the uplift of the legal profession is before the candidate is admitted and not when disbarment proceedings are pending. And there can be no doubt that the necessity for disbarment, with the accompanying reflection upon the integrity of the profession, is frequently the result of a lax and perfunctory method of passing upon the character of the candidate at the time of his application for admission.
We hear much of elevating the intellectual standards of the profession by means of more exacting requirements as to scholarship and legal learning, but is it not equally important to strive to protect and uplift the moral standards of the profession by employing all reliable methods that can be devised for detecting and excluding the morally unfit?
In large cities and populous communities the need for a searching scrutiny of the moral character of candidates for the Bar is more than ordinarily imperative. In the City of New York, where for more than five years I have served as Chairman of the Committee on Character, the problem of ascertaining the moral qualification of applicants is probably more complex than elsewhere. Our local conditions are doubtless duplicated to some extent in all large cities. Many candidates come from the obscure walks of life and are little, if at all, known to members of the profession of recognized standing, while a considerable number are from the ranks of those who have been in the country but a few years. The ascertainment of the past record of these candidates is difficult, but for the sake of the profession and as a safeguard to the community it must be done so far as possible. By this reference to the peculiar necessity for the investigation of the character of applicants in the larger cities, it is not meant to minimize the need for such investigation in other communities. The task may be simpler elsewhere, but its conscientious performance is equally imperative.
The methods now employed by the Committee on Character, of which I am Chairman, in investigating the moral character of applicants for admission to the Bar, have been developed during years of experience in dealing with this difficult problem. While these methods are surely not perfect, they nevertheless include every useful expedient that the members of our committee have, so far, been able to devise. Naturally, therefore, my recommendations can hardly be expected to go beyond those methods and practices. Accordingly, it seems to me that the most instructive presentation of the subject that I can make will consist in reciting in some detail and with occasional comment, the proceedings of the Committee on Character in the City of New York.
First, there is the question of a suitable tribunal or committee to pass upon the character of applicants. In theory this duty ultimately rests with the courts, but in my judgment it should be delegated to a special committee charged with the responsibility of investigating the character of applicants and of excluding all who are unworthy.
In the State of New York, which is territorially divided into four judicial departments, in each of which sits an intermediate appellate court called an Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, the admission of attorneys is under the supervision of these several courts, subject to the rules as to the examination and qualifications of candidates promulgated by the Court of Appeals, our highest appellate tribunal. A statute provides for the periodical examination of candidates, as to legal knowledge, in each judicial department, by a Board of Law Examiners, and that “Upon the State Board of Law Examiners certifying that a person has passed the required examination, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in the Department in which such person shall have resided for at least six months prior to such application, if it shall be satisfied that such person possesses the character and general fitness, requisite for an attorney and counselor-at-law, shall admit him to practice as such attorney and counselor-at-law in all the Courts of this State." But the duty of ascertaining the character of applicants is not left to the several Appellate Divisions. By a court rule of practice the Appellate Division in each Department is required to appoint each year a Committee on Character and Fitness composed of not less than three members “ to whom shall be referred all applications for admission to practice as attorney and counselor-at-law.” As this rule prescribes generally the duties of these several committees on character, I will quote it in part:
“To the respective committees shall be referred all applications for admission to practice .... The committee shall require the attendance before it, or a member thereof, of each applicant, with the affidavit of at least two practising attorneys acquainted with such applicant, residing in the Judicial District in which the applicant resides, that he is of such character and general fitness as justifies admission to practice, and the affidavit must set forth in detail the facts upon which the affiant's knowledge of the applicant is based, and it shall be the duty of the committee to examine each applicant, and the committee must be satisfied from such examination, and other evidence that the applicant shall produce, that the applicant has such qualifications as to character and general fitness as in the opinion of the committee justify his admission to practice, and no person shall be admitted to practice except upon the production of a certificate from the committee to that effect, unless the court otherwise orders.
“No applicant shall be entitled to receive such a certificate who is not able to speak and to write the English language intelligently, nor until he affirmatively establishes to the satisfaction of the committee that he posesses such a character as justifies his admission to the Bar and qualifies him to perform the duties of an attorney and counselor-at-law.”
Doubtless every state requires some proof, usually by affidavit, of the good moral character of candidates for admission to the Bar. Where this proof is submitted only to the court, it is, I believe, usually accepted almost as a matter of course, and any consideration of the morals of the applicants is perfunctory. A searching investigation of the character of applicants is really foreign to the functions of an appellate tribunal, and, in any event, is a task too burdensome to impose upon the court. I therefore believe that, as in the State of New York, the duty of investigating the character of applicants should be delegated to committees, or a committee, having full authority and responsibility in the premises. In most states one such committee would probably be adequate.
In the First Department of the State of New York, in which our committee serves, four law examinations are held annually. The number passing each examination averages approximately seventy-five. These, together with a few applicants who seek admission on the ground of prior practice in other states, as permitted by a rule of the Court of Appeals, have to satisfy the Committee on Character of their moral qualifications and fitness before being admitted. The committee in our department is composed of five members.
As appears from the statute to which reference, has been made, the State Board of Law Examiners certifies to the Appellate Division after each examination a list of the names of those who have successfully passed. This list is delivered to the Committee on Character, which then causes to be published for ten successive days a notice, setting forth the names and addresses of the candidates and calling upon them to file their papers, including the requisite affidavits as to character, on or before a certain date, usually about two weeks from the insertion of the first notice.
Probably the most important paper required to be filed by the applicant is his own sworn statement verifying his answers to the questions which the committee submits to each applicant. These questions are printed on blank forms, with space for the answers. The verification required is that the applicant" being duly sworn, says: I have read the foregoing questions and have answered the same in my own handwriting fully and frankly. The answers subscribed by me are true of my own knowledge.”
Inasmuch as these questions and answers furnish the basis for the preliminary investigation of the character of the candidate, it may be instructive to set forth the questions in full:
1. Give your full name, age, residence and birth place. If born in a foreign country, at what age did you come to the United States? If naturalized, state when and where.
2. Have you always resided in the City of New York? If not, state where and when you resided elsewhere.
3. State the names, residence and occupation of your parents.
4. State all the schools you have attended and between what dates. 5. Did
you attend college? If so, state what colleges and when, specifying dates. What degrees, if any, have you received ?
6. Did you attend a law school? If so, state what school and when, specifying dates. What degrees in law, if any, have you received ?
7. Have you been employed in, or studied law in, a law office? If so, give a full list of such offices and state the period, specifying dates and nature of your employment or study in each. State specifically the office of the practising attorney in which you have served a clerkship for one year continuously, either before examination by the State Board of Law Examiners or after such examination and prior to your application, as required by Rule III of the Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors-at-Law.
8. Have you ever applied for admission to practice as an attorney or counselor in any court in any other state or country? If so, specify when and where; whether you were admittted to the Bar, and if so, how long and where you practiced.
9. Have you ever applied for admission to the Bar of the State of New York in any department other than the First? If so, where, when, and with what result?
10. Have you ever been employed in any occupation, business or profession other than the law? If so, when and where? State fully the names and addresses of all your employers, the positions you have occupied and the period of such employment, specifying dates. Are such employers willing to appear before the committee on your behalf? Have you ever been engaged in any
business or profession on your own account? If so, state in detail the nature thereof, the time during which you were so engaged, where the business was located, and what became of it.