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Can a Felon Become a Lawyer?

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. | Last updated on

It's easy to understand why most people would automatically conclude that a felony conviction would keep them from ever becoming a lawyer. If you have had some trouble in the past, don't let a felony conviction cause you to completely write-off ever becoming a lawyer. The process is not as complicated as might think. And besides, here's proof.

Can a Felon Become a Lawyer?

The short answer is yes! A convicted felon can become licensed to practice law, though not in all states. As of 2015, only three states and one territory outright ban convicted felons from ever becoming lawyers: Kansas, Mississippi, Texas, and the Northern Mariana Islands. This information was taken from pages 16-17 of the National Conference of Bar Examiner's Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements 2015.

It's probably quite safe to say that we've all made mistakes in our lives and have done things we regret. Though not all of us are convicted felons, a good many in the population have at least some form of criminal record. The point is this: you are not as alone as you think.

You Too Can Be a Lawyer -- Someday

If you've been convicted with a felony conviction, don't dismiss becoming an attorney. In fact, the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions in the United States have a rather forgiving attitude when it comes to criminal backgrounds.

If you have no intention of ever changing your criminal path, then becoming an attorney is not a serious goal for you. But if you really want to remain on the right side of the law going forward, you're already halfway there. Some jurisdictions require a certain passage of time, while others also require a demonstration of redemption. But there's one thing that you must always be wary of -- looking like a liar.

Don't Get Cute: Be Honest

If there is any advice that can be given, it is this: DISCLOSE. Do not attempt to hide past or even current character issues.

We're sorry for putting that in bold, but it must be said. Every state will subject you to a moral character examination during which time you will submit documentation of your past life including education, addresses and of course criminal background. Since you are a convicted felon, you have a rap-sheet in the state in which you were convicted and with the FBI.

If you're a convicted felon -- indeed, if you've been convicted of anything besides routine moving violations, the presumption moves from one of presumed good chracter to one where the applicant must prove that she is of good current moral character. If your state finds out that you've actively been trying to conceal something, you will be hurting yourself, and you can kiss your lawyer dreams goodbye. Your denial will be on record and you will have to disclose your denial to other states if you apply to them as well.

Disclose, Disclose, Disclose

You're embarrassed about the past. You think that by disclosing your past misdeeds, the bar will pass over your file and reject it. Your first inclination is to deny that you've ever been convicted of anything. Fight all of that: DISCLOSE all convictions.

Someone I know within the legal ethics industry has made it clear that dishonesty pretty much spells curtains for any applicant attempting to pass moral character in his or her jurisdiction. Take this to heart.

You'll probably feel a sense of closure and cleanliness in exposing your misdeeds during the moral character process. It'll feel like a confessional. Believe it or not, sincere honesty will maximize your chances of passing moral character.

Law School Education

A final note. The general policy of most law schools is that a felony conviction will not automatically bar admission to that school either. Of course, there are many more schools than there are states, and the policies are even more numerous. The application process is probably the most arduous.

One thing deserves mention: Some states require a law school education -- and other's don't. Going to law school and eventually passing the bar is the more traditional route to becoming a lawyer. You should focus on being accepted to an ABA accredited school if you want to minimize trouble with jurisdictions that might potentially raise issues about your education.

Go Out and Be Honest

It cannot be overemphasized -- your best strategy for beating the moral character stage of application to a state bar is honesty and full disclosure. If it makes you feel any better, you can seek an attorney with experience in this area to guide you through the process. They've seen it all. Chances are they've seen your case a million times.

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