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New York Bar Votes to Ease Police Checks for Would-Be Lawyers

Jan. 22, 2022, 7:05 PM

New York on Saturday moved closer to scaling back law enforcement checks on would-be lawyers, as the state bar association endorsed the change.

Law school graduates seeking to become attorneys would no longer have to report arrests and other police interactions that fall short of convictions, the bar’s House of Delegates recommended in a vote.

The recommendation, prompted by what the bar called persistent racial disparities in criminal justice, now goes to New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and other top state judges for a final decision.

DiFiore two years ago announced that New York would remove questions about mental health history from its bar application. She found questions about the topic and candidates’ treatment histories “intrusive” and of little value.

The current application asks prospective lawyers whether, as an adult or juvenile, they have “been cited, ticketed, arrested, taken into custody, charged with, indicted, convicted or tried for, or pleaded guilty to,” a felony or misdemeanor.

In a report released Saturday, a bar working group said that such excessive law enforcement screening had discouraged people of color from applying to law school and the bar.

“How can we possibly stand behind this question?” said New York State Bar Association President T. Andrew Brown just before the vote. “It is unlawful. It’s an anti-diversity question.”

The bar’s recommendation would judge applicants on adult convictions but not arrests or juvenile incarcerations. Of the roughly 150 attendees on Saturday, 81% voted in favor of making the change.

There was the same “passion and enthusiasm and commitment” in the working group on law enforcement screening as there was in the effort to remove questions about mental health, said David Marshall, a professor with St. John’s University School of Law, who chaired the working group.

“We recognize these changes are going to have a significant impact,” he said.

All but one of the law schools in New York require applicants to disclose at least some criminal record data on their application forms, the bar report found.

When schools were asked why they request such data, most said it was because the bar application asks for it. If the bar adjusts its law enforcement questions, schools will do the same, the report said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Skolnik in Washington at sskolnik@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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