Becoming A Lawyer – It’s A Question of Character
When people think of becoming lawyers, they typically think of:
– law school
– law school letters of reference
It is important to also consider character.
How does one become a lawyer? The requirements are in an Ontario statute called “The Law Society Act”. There is only one statutory requirement (the Law Society makes up the rest in the form of regulations). That requirement is a requirement of “character”. To be specific that S. 27(2) of the Law Society Act states that:
The “Good character” requirement
“(2) It is a requirement for the issuance of every licence under this Act that the applicant be of good character. 2006, c. 21, Sched. C, s. 23 (1).”
So, what is meant by “good character”?
It is impossible to define character. That said, character is of vital importance to our personal lives, democracy, spiritual growth, etc. In fact, the late Sir John Templeton published a journal called “In Character“. Many believe that “character” should be included in the curriculum of public schools.
The Character Question – Is It Really A Question of Good Character?
The requirement can’t mean “good character”. It must mean that one can’t have “bad character”
It is impossible to provide a precise definition of what is meant by “good character”. I suspect that people only have an awareness of one’s character in extreme cases – that is character that is extremely good or extremely bad. When it comes to becoming a lawyer in Ontario, it is “bad character” that is the problem – “good character” is presumed. To put it another way, applicants for admission to the bar are not (in general), required to demonstrate that they have “good character”. I suspect that a large number of Ontario lawyers would NOT make the cut if a showing of “good character” were required.
What is “bad character” and when is it determined to be “bad”?
There are two problems with the current process.
1. When one learns that there is a problem – this issue is decided by a Law Society panel after someone has been through law school and completed the lawyer licensing process (you would think that someone ought to be able to get a ruling in advance);
2. What is the conduct that will create a problem – From the perspective of an outside observer, it would appear that these determinations are rather arbitrary. There do NOT appear to be any objective guidelines that somebody can look up. In 2006 I devoted a complete chapter in “Law School Bound” book to discussing the “question of character”.
Should the “Character Issue” be decided by the Law Society?
Canada is one of the last places where the legal profession is still self-governing. Most other countries (the U.K. is the most recent convert) have had the good sense to not allow lawyers to govern lawyers. Perhaps another body should be entrusted with the job of deciding the question of character. To put it another way:
Is it really in the interests of society that the Legal Profession be the ones to determine what is sufficiently good character to practice law?
At a minimum, this question should be considered.
Two Recent Ontario Examples:
First, An Example Of Meeting The “Good Character” test:
“From 1979 to 1993, she was charged five times with 39 offences, she says, including fraud, theft of money and credit cards, and forging documents. She got 18 months in jail. It’s not something she is proud of, she says.”
Obviously this applicant was convicted of at least one criminal offense.
Second, An Example Of Not Meeting The “Good Character” test:
In this case the applicant was charged with criminal harassment, but the charges were apparently dropped.
The Role of Criminal Convictions …
It is obvious that criminal convictions are neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for being denied admission to the bar of Ontario. Much more is involved. The question is: what is that “much more”?
Shouldn’t People Have A Right To Know in advance …
The time has come for more transparency in the process. People should have a way of learning in advance what will or will not be a problem for bar admission.
Social Media And The Pre-Law Student
I know that most pre-law students are focused on “getting into law school”. They are not so much concerned with the “character question” than they are with knowing their “chances of getting into law school”.
If you read the two articles referenced in this article you will see that all of the applicant’s behavior was subjected to scrutiny. In the digital world, where social media is the rage, careers are (not so much made but destroyed) because of the reckless use of social media sites. You owe it to your future career to be thoughtful, careful and discrete about your public digital image. And yes, this principle can be applied to the world of law admissions!
Copyright © 2011, John Richardson. All Rights Reserved.