Can Lawyers Have a Criminal Record and Still Practice Law?

Can Lawyers have a Criminal Record?

Often when you deal with or think about a lawyer, it is because they are the ones helping you avoid trouble so that it doesn’t appear on YOUR record months or years down the road.  Or maybe it’s not like that at all, and you think of lawyers frequently merely because you have been watching too many episodes of Law and Order! Whatever the case, perhaps you found yourself wondering, can lawyers have a criminal record? This question came to my mind recently, and I did some research because I just needed to know the answer! Read on to find out what I discovered!

Lawyers can still practice in most states if they have a criminal record; however, it greatly depends on the facts and the jurisdiction in which they reside. In addition, all lawyers must be evaluated and pass an examination of character and moral fitness before becoming licensed to practice law.

Lawyers are around to help us in times of need, but the reality is that they are human, and they can make mistakes just like anybody else. Continue reading to learn more about what happens when someone who wants to practice law can’t clear a background check.

Can You be a Lawyer with a Criminal Record? 

Having a criminal record can make things challenging for a lawyer to continue their career or for someone who is hoping to become a lawyer. However, as long as they are not convicted as a felon and trying to practice in one of the few states that ban felony offenders from practicing law, this does not mean that it is impossible!

I came across quite a few highly-rated lawyers, such as David Jon Pullman, that kept it no secret that he had a criminal background. David spent two and a half years in a New York prison because he sold LSD to an undercover officer! Wise move? Absolutely not! However, he uses this personal life-altering lesson as motivation to do better, serve others, and to offer a level of legal representation that most people deserve a chance to have.

It takes some guts to air out all of your “dirty laundry,” so to speak, so by doing this, he has certainly earned my respect! Back to the question, can lawyers have a criminal record? The answer is yes; they most certainly can.

If a lawyer commits a crime after they are already licensed, there are a few scenarios that are possible, but it usually results in immediate suspension. The suspension lasts until after a final decision is made about whether the suspension should continue, the lawyer should be disbarred, or if good cause is shown, and consequences should be set aside.

When an acting lawyer has been convicted of a felony charge, they are usually automatically disbarred but allowed to regain their license after a set period of time, around five years. Disbarment means the loss of a license and the lawyer being banned from practicing law. Some states have ruled that the crime must be of “moral turpitude,” or crimes involving deception or unethical conduct, to be disbarred. Some crimes that would lead to this determination include extortion, fraud, misrepresentation, bribery, and theft. Ultimately the severity of professional consequences a lawyer can receive if they commit a crime depends on the act committed and the jurisdiction where the lawyer is licensed.

When a person commits a crime before they begin to practice law, and the offense does NOT fall into the moral turpitude category, a person could still pursue the dream of becoming a lawyer as long as some time has passed. Depending on the severity of the crime committed, keep in mind that it will not necessarily be an easy task!

Taking the bar exam will still likely be permitted; however, that is surprisingly NOT the sole deciding factor in receiving a license to practice law. A person must also pass an examination of moral character. They want to know if the individual seeking to get involved in practicing law has learned a lesson. They also need concrete evidence that the individual is no longer a threat to others and will never repeat the actions. What is one of the most important qualities they seek? They want to know you are honest about the good, the bad, and the ugly. What does the examination of moral character entail? Read on to find out!

Importance of the American Bar Association

The American Bar Association was founded in 1878 to serve as a significant resource to law professionals. They establish model ethical codes, law school accreditation and promote competence and professionalism. The ABA assesses an applicants’ character qualifications for entry to law school and admission to the bar. When one speaks of “the bar” regarding the law, it also means being granted access to join the professional association of lawyers and perform law within a specified court system jurisdiction.

What Is the Examination of Moral Character?

Something that doesn’t seem to be well known to society is that becoming a lawyer isn’t just about passing the bar exams. You are probably puzzled right now and thinking, “wow, they have been feeding me false information my entire life!” It’s true, becoming a lawyer goes beyond competence and pricey law school smarts. Are you a decent person? Can you prove that your past doesn’t define your future? These are the main things that bar examiners want to find out.

A bar committee conducts an examination of moral character. Typically a review takes about six months. However, if any red flags arise, that number is thrown out the window! It could take a few additional months or even into the next year. If anything comes up that you did not disclose in your paperwork, likely, the outcome will not turn out in your favor. There was an example of a young lady who had a felony charge on her record. She was denied admission to the bar, surprisingly not because of the felony itself, but because she chose to hide the fact that it existed, and the bar viewed this act as deceptive and dishonest. Again, the point is that honesty is the key to moving forward.

After applying for the moral character examination, if any concerns catch the bar’s attention, you will receive an ABA letter saying that further analysis is needed. They will usually request more information and a time frame for it to be submitted. If they are not satisfied with the information you have provided, they will ask for an in-person meeting. This meeting is audio recorded and treated as an actual hearing. Talk about nerve-racking, right?

After the meeting, the committee will inform you if you have received clearance or have failed to prove that you are of fit moral character. Often if the bar exam itself has already been completed and passed, this approval is usually the last step in getting sworn in!

However, if a denial is received, you will receive a letter with the option to appeal the denial. An appeal is expensive and could take another nine months or longer. Not to mention, there is no guarantee that it would all be worth it in the end.


Lawyers are imperfect humans, just like the rest of us. There are many types of lawyers ranging from criminal lawyers to immigration lawyers and many in between. Though we usually think of lawyers helping us defend our rights or keeping a charge off of our record, they may occasionally have a criminal record of their own.

One of the most critical steps in becoming a lawyer is passing the Moral Character Examination conducted by the American Bar Association, which can take nine months or more if any red flags arise. Just because concerns occur does not mean that it is impossible to pass with approval.

Whether the incident happened before they were practicing law or after they became licensed to practice law, the professional repercussions of the action decided by the bar can vary greatly depending on the severity and location that it took place. 

In the big scheme of things, lawyers can have a criminal record. Having a past can shut down their hopes of being a lawyer, or it could do the opposite. In some cases, it could motivate them to help others in their times of need, even though the journey may have a few more bumps in the road.

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