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How to prepare references for a state bar application

Preparing References

There are many steps that aspiring lawyers must take before being admitted to a state bar. While many individuals are familiar with the bar exam that lawyers are often required to take, there are other critical aspects of the application process that could affect the likelihood of being admitted to a state bar. This may include a requirement that an applicant submit references that could testify to the character and ability of the applicant to practice law.

While this may seem like a straightforward process, there are many critical components of preparing references that bar applicants should be aware of.

Details of bar application references

The purpose and nature of references could differ greatly from state to state. Some state bar admittance groups require that references be submitted with a moral character evaluation which is included in a larger application process which must be completed to take the bar exam. Conversely, other bars may require that references be submitted as part of an independent character and fitness approval process. The differences between states could have an effect at what point in the bar application timeline an individual may need to submit references.

Similarly, the information that may be required from a reference could also differ between state bars. Some states, such as Michigan, may have a bar applicant reference form that asks predetermined questions regarding the relationship between the referrer and the applicant. Questions asked on a reference form may pertain to how long a reference has known an applicant, the nature of the relationship, and an overall judgement on the applicant’s ability to practice law.

Other states, such as Pennsylvania, may require that references submit a letter using specific letterhead and include certain information within the letter. Because processes regarding references differ between states, it may be critical for an applicant to familiarize themselves with the requirements set forth in their locality.

Who should I use as a reference?

In addition to the processes set by different bar, who can be listed as a reference may additionally vary from state to state. Some states do not allow certain individuals from being listed as a reference, such as family members or individuals who do not directly know the applicant. Other states may require that a listed reference be an individual already admitted to the state bar and is currently in good standing with the organization. Similarly, some states may require that references come from specific people, such as judges or attorneys.

Perspective bar applicants may want to select a credible individual that could speak positively about a candidate. This could include former law professors, former classmates already admitted to the bar, or others in the legal profession that could speak positively about an applicant. Additionally, candidates may want to consider the ability of a reference to answer questions or submit documents in a timely manner.

What should be included in a letter of reference?

Once an individual has agreed to be a reference for a bar applicant, they may need to submit a letter of reference to the state bar advocating for the applicant. Many reference letters may discuss how a referrer knows a candidate, how long a relationship has existed, and address an applicant’s fitness and personal knowledge regarding the law. This could include descriptions of how a candidate participated in legal activities including law clinics, law school, or work under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Additionally, the inclusion of minor criticism or depictions of a candidate overcoming a weakness could add credibility to a reference letter.

It may be beneficial for a bar candidate to provide documents to help give an individual as much information as possible when creating a letter of reference. Common examples of documents that could give a reference an overview of a candidate could include a personal statement, resume, or unofficial transcript. While these documents may help an individual create a recommendation, an effective reference letter could also address a candidate’s ability to be a successful lawyer.

Other rules regarding what should be included in a reference letter may change between states. Some states require that a mailing address, phone number, or other contact information be included within the reference letter. Similarly, some bars, such as the Massachusetts Bar, require that reference letters be dated and submitted within six months of the submission of the character and fitness evaluation.

Overall, while the process of preparing references for the purpose of being admitted to a state bar may seem simple at first, it could quickly become a complicated process. There are many nuances regarding references that vary between bars. Because of this, it is crucial for any individual seeking application to a bar to familiarize themselves with the requirements set in place by a state bar. However, individuals who successfully submit references are one step closer to becoming licensed attorneys.

Alan Hamilton Alan Hamilton is a founding partner at Shiver Hamilton, which is a personal injury firm located in Atlanta Georgia. Alan has been recognized as “Legal Elite” by Georgia Trend Magazine, and as a “Super Lawyer” by Atlanta Magazine. Prior to co-founding Shiver Hamilton, Alan practiced with a nationally recognized trial firm and served as a federal law clerk. He has also been named to “Top 40 under 40” by the National Trial Lawyers Association and by the American Society of Legal Advocates.