Like any lawyer after a long period of time practicing in front of the same court or board, I left this weekend's hearings with a sense of confusion. I thought I understood this process. Maybe I do, but I'm not sure.
The purpose, in my opinion, of bar admission hearings are two fold: One is to ask questions relating to issues of character and fitness, the other is what I call "legalized hazing."
When someone is appointed to the Board of Bar Examiners, they go through some training. Some Board members stick to the script, while others just want to get to the point and determine whether the applicant should be admitted. I don't know what that training entails, but if I had to guess, I would guess the following is taught (it isn't, but it just looks this way from the other side of the table):
1. Make the applicant uncomfortable.
Regardless of their answer to a question, respond with "I'm confused," or "I thought you said before, that...." This is interrogation 101. Make the person being questioned second guess what they just said, even if you know they are telling the truth.
2. Even if you, as a lawyer on the Board, understand how something happened, (because you've been in that situation), pretend you don't.
This always entrigues me, this "I don't understand," when every lawyer who has practiced law for 5 minutes has had the same situation. I sit there and look around thinking "you know what happened here, it happens all the time." Some Board members do the "spoon feeding" thing and say "so what happened was....," while others continue with open ended questions appearing to have no idea what caused the situation to occur.
3. In an "us" vs. "them" mentality - ignore the lawyers who represent applicants.
I've been told this is not true, that members of the Board haven't been told "not" to talk to lawyers that appear before the Board, but "I'm confused" when the more senior members of the Board chat it up with us in the hallways and otherwise outside the hearing setting while the new members make it clear that saying "hello" or even making eye contact is a real problem. By the way, the applicants notice this, and it doesn't say much for the profession. What's funny is that when I'm in court and I see a judge off the bench, I usually say hello instead of turning my head.
4. Assume misinterpretations of questions are lies, lies, lies.
When an applicant says they answered a question because they thought the question said "this" instead of what the Bar Examiner "knows" to be the correct interpretation, what we have here is a difference of interpretations. Sure, some applicants are full of it and were just trying to pass one over on the Board, but let's assume that maybe there's a few that are just not as smart as the Bar Examiners and were just wrong. It is entirely possible that the applicant is not as smart in the nuances of the Bar application as the Board Member.
5. In another attempt to make the applicant uncomfortable, make faces that indicate you are just shocked, shocked, shocked at the answer you are hearing while becoming more aggressive in your questioning.
I was always told that in court, it's inappropriate to make faces. What are we teaching young lawyers?
For that matter, as another Bar Defense Lawyer said to me this weekend "these applicants go to hearings and think that this is the way lawyers behave."
That comment hit me. While the Board is not group of similarly minded, or similarly behaved people, when an applicant pays a fee, plus hires a lawyer, puts on a suit, travels to another city, and sits in a room with those that are judging whether they should be a lawyer - shouldn't they demonstrate lawyers at their best?
Listen, there's nothing wrong with a little in-your-face-talking-to at these hearings. Nothing wrong with scaring the crap out of a potential lawyer in an effort to let them know that this is a rough and tumble profession and certain behavior is not tolerated. But shouldn't there be a demonstration of the behavior that is expected from lawyers?
An applicant's lack of understanding of the question, or the issue that is trying to be created, doesn't always equate to a lie, and many Board members understand this. The purpose of these hearings should, should be to gather information and determine whether the applicant is being candid and whether both those issues establish a person with the character and fitness to be an attorney at law. There's an applicant blatently lying? Slam him. But some of them are being honest, I promise you that.
Which brings me to another issue of confusion: financial responsibility.
I always advise applicants that putting their financial house in order is essential to being admitted in Florida. This means either all debts are paid, there has been efforts to pay, or there is a payment plan. I have declined to represent applicants that have financial issues and have made no effort to resolve them. I know the Board will defer their admission until efforts are made to pay debt. The old "let me in to the Bar so I can make money and then I'll try to pay my debt" doesn't work.
The reasons for the financial issues are still fair game for the Board, as they need to know whether the applicant is responsible when it comes to their own, and more importantly, client funds.
But when there is a large debt, fully paid, and the Board eats the guy alive, casting irrelevance on the payment of the debt, it's more confusion for me. I saw this recently. This was the guy. In the sea of law students with crushing debt, unpaid taxes, maybe mortgage foreclosures, he was the one that paid off a large debt. Man was I excited. What an example.
But that he paid the debt was not even relevant, it seemed. They did all the things I've described above, and made it clear that they were just not believing anything he said about anything.
But the guy had a large debt, and he paid it, every penny.
So what do I tell my clients?
Of course I know what I will tell them in addition to everything else I tell them:
"Ignore the dirty looks and 'shocked' looks on their faces, don't be 'confused' by the 'I'm confused' method of responding to your answers, if you're lying, don't, but if you're not, don't let 'I thought you said' put you off-guard.
And, if you ever get the chance to apply for the Board of Bar Examiners, remember everything that happened when you were there."
Anonymous comments are welcome as long as they say something relevant and half-way intelligent and arent a vehicle for a coward to attack someone. I trust you understand. Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of I Got A Bar Complaint.