Survivor-Led Change: ERA Petitions CA Bar to Clarify Moral Character Applicants Don’t Need to Disclose Survivor Status

March 18. 2021


In a small change that will make a big difference for survivors of sexual violence in the legal profession, Equal Rights Advocates recently successfully petitioned the California Bar Association to clarify that survivors who are applying for bar membership do not need to disclose in their moral character application that they were involved in student misconduct proceedings related to the harm they endured.

Background

As part of the California Bar membership application, law students must complete a “moral character” section — essentially a specified and extensive background check for the legal profession. The section includes a question asking whether the applicant has been involved in any student misconduct proceedings. For survivors who went through the Title IX or student misconduct process after experiencing sexual assault or sexual harassment, this question, on its face, asked them to disclose their status as a survivor. 

Even worse, answering “yes” to this question often delayed the survivor’s Bar admission application, and meant disclosing their survivor status to a Bar representative, because the Bar would follow up to ensure the student misconduct proceeding was not an egregious act of misconduct by the applicant that should disqualify them from being barred.

We in the legal field have to ask ourselves: what does it really mean to reexamine the status quo? — Maha Ibrahim, Staff Attorney

Survivor-Led Change

Equal Rights Advocates was made aware of this harmful question by two survivors who were applying for admission to the California Bar. They tipped us off to the issue in the hopes that we could do something to save other survivors from the same unfair situation. 

As a result, ERA sent a letter to the California Bar Association explaining the consequences the question has for survivors of sexual and interpersonal violence, and requesting that the Bar makes it clear that complainants (survivors) do not have to answer “yes” to this question — though respondents still must.

The Bar Association responded by immediately amending its Moral Character FAQ, clarifying that the question applies only to respondents, not complaints. However, this information is not on the application itself — only the FAQ, so there is still work to be done.

“We in the legal field have to ask ourselves: what does it really mean to reexamine the status quo?” asked ERA Staff Attorney Maha Ibrahim. “Discrimination is so engrained in our profession that even those of us who advocate for survivors every day didn’t see this long-standing harmful practice for what it is — not until it was brought to our attention by survivors who were wondering why something hadn’t been done already and were stressed and unduly exposed navigating this question in the application.”

Why It Matters

In addition to disclosing to Bar officials — often respected lawyers in the applicant’s chosen profession — that they survived sexual harm, many survivor Bar admission applicants are also pressured to explain the admissions delay to their employer, often law offices or firms who are aware of the applicant’s projected bar admissions date because passing the bar exam and meeting the other application requirements for being barred often means a significant pay increase from that of a law clerk (or similar position), to an attorney’s salary. In addition to the financial consequences of delaying that salary increase, sometimes by as much as 6 months, explaining the delay often involves a painful disclosure of a personal trauma to a supervisor or another colleague or supervisor in their new profession and perhaps in a work environment in which they would not have otherwise invited such scrutiny and knowledge into their past trauma.

Discrimination is so engrained in our profession that even those of us who advocate for survivors every day didn’t see this long-standing harmful practice for what it is — not until it was brought to our attention by survivors who were wondering why something hadn’t been done already. — Maha Ibrahim, Staff Attorney

“The main lesson for me is: don’t just take for granted that someone else is fighting the fight,” ERA’s Maha Ibrahim said. “What else are we not seeing? How else is our profession perpetuating sexism, racism, ableism, and other forms of oppression?”

The next class of California Bar admissions applicants are currently completing and submitting their moral character applications ahead of the July 2021 Bar exam. Please help Equal Rights Advocates raise awareness by passing along this information to   associates, law clerks, fellows and mentees — you never know who in your life might be a survivor.

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