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46 Harbinger 1 (2021-2022)

handle is hein.journals/harbg46 and id is 1 raw text is: CHANGING CHARACTER AND FITNESS IN NEW YORK STATE
Joining the legal field has many bars before it. You have to take the LSAT or,
in some instances, the GRE to be admitted into a law school. You then spend three
years, paying an exorbitant amount of money, in school, ending with an average of
$145 0 in debt. Then you must pass the Bar to become a licensed attorney, which,
depending on where you are, have passage rates of belw40%. While each of these
serves as a massive obstacle to the legal profession, there is yet another: Character
and Fitness assessment.
Built into the Bar admission process, Character and Fitness is billed as a way to
prevent unscrupulous people from becoming lawyers and taking advantage of clients.
Essentially it is meant to keep the Giulianis and Avenattis of the world from bilking
people out of money. However, its basis for doing so is based on debts and prior
criminal contact, with the assumption being that those in debt or who have
committed any kind of crime are substantially less trustworthy.
In New York, the same Character and Fitness process is being carried out
through Section F of its Bar alication fonn. In particular, Question 26 asks about
prior criminal legal contact. This disproportionately bars people of color, especially
Black and Brown people, who are subject to repeated unjust contact with the
criminal legal system. This very question, which would not stop a Michael Cohen
from becoming a barred attorney in New York, could just as easily stop a Black
woman unjustly convicted of larceny from becoming an attorney. It also violates
laws that prevent licensing agencies from gathering information about prior youthful
offender adjudications and sealed arrest records to name only two instances of
protected criminal legal history requested. Additionally, because law schools insist
on asking the same question in their applications because the Bar does, it serves as
a deterrent to even beginning the process of entering the legal profession.
Organizations around New York State have realized that Character and Fitness
acts as this obstacle to the legal field and have taken action. On June 1, 2021, the
Association of the Bar of the City of New York (City Bar) sent a letter to New
York's Office of Court Administration (OCA) asking it to address the illegal
nature of Question 26 and consider reforms necessary to bring the Character and
Fitness process more in line with principles of racial justice. Upon receipt and review
of that letter, OCA solicited responses from stakeholders and other parties concerned
with the inequity of the Character and Fitness evaluation. One of those organizations,
Unlock the Bar, answered that call and sent in its own letter not only supporting the
call for reforming Question 26, but also demanding the abolition of the Character
and Fitness assessment of the Bar.
Unlock the Bar believes that the steps outlined in the City Bar letter are the first
steps to ensuring greater access to the legal profession. However, OCA cannot stop
Johari Menelik Frasier is the Communications and Policy Coordinator for Unlock the Bar.
He also currently serves as one of the Managing Editors of the New York University Review
of Law and Social Change, of which The Harbinger is a publication.


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