Every U.S. jurisdiction requires individuals who seek admission to the bar to demonstrate that they possess good moral character. Applicants are required to provide evidence of their personal history and recent behavior based on the assumption that this information predicts whether they will become problem lawyers. This project explores whether the information that is elicited from bar applicants during the admissions process can help predict which applicants will later be subject to lawyer discipline.
The research reported here uses information from the admissions files of lawyers admitted to the Connecticut bar from 1989 to 1992 to compare those who were disciplined with those who were not disciplined. It analyzes information reported during the bar admissions process that may predict later lawyer misconduct including, inter alia, prior criminal history, problem credit history, prior employment history, academic misconduct, substance abuse, and psychological history. The study reveals that many of the responses on the admissions application are statistically associated with an elevated risk of future discipline. In logistic regression analysis, statistically significant variables include gender, law school grades, law school prestige, delinquent credit accounts, number of traffic violations, amount of student loan debt, having been a party to civil litigation (excluding divorce), and having been diagnosed with or treated for a psychological disorder.
A second finding is that the relationship between an applicant’s characteristics at the time of bar admission and subsequent discipline risk differs depending on the nature of the discipline. Some of our explanatory variables are associated with an increased risk that an applicant will receive serious discipline; a somewhat different set of factors predicts which applicants will go on to receive less severe discipline. This suggests that the disciplined group is heterogeneous, and consists of at least two different subsets of lawyers who misbehave in different ways, and possibly for different reasons.
Although some of the variables on the bar application are associated with a statistically higher likelihood of subsequent discipline, our third—and possibly most important—finding is that these variables nevertheless make very poor predictors of subsequent misconduct. The explanation for this seeming paradox is that the overall baseline likelihood of discipline is so low (only about 2.5% of the 6,159 lawyers in our cohort). Thus, even if some variable (e.g., having defaulted on a student loan) doubles the likelihood of subsequent disciplinary action—a very strong effect—the probability of subsequent discipline for someone with a student loan default is still only 5%. It seems highly unlikely that any regulator would be comfortable denying admission to an applicant who had only a 5% chance of subsequent discipline. Put differently, even knowing that an applicant has a substantially elevated risk of future discipline is probably not sufficient to justify some kind of corrective or preventative action, given the low baseline risk.
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