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Vol. 29, No. 4

The Gatekeeper

by Allan Head

This is the ninth article in a three-year series focusing on the leadership of lawyers—things bar leaders ought to know and think about.


Do you have a good security system in your home? Probably. Do you have a good security system in your office? Probably. Do you have a good security system in your profession? Probably not!

Think about it—we protect those things most precious to us, and those most vulnerable to attack. But where does our profession fall on the list of things most precious and most vulnerable?

My question to you is: Who is really guarding our profession from those who would enter—who probably never should have been allowed to enter—who would do our proud profession harm?

You could say the “gatekeeper” is the state agency that most states, including North Carolina, refer to as their board of law examiners. The board of law examiners, or office of bar admissions, makes up the questions, grades the exams, and may even administer “character and fitness” interviews.

They are the gatekeepers—right? Wrong.

It concerns me that if you can get into law school today, you are smart enough to graduate; if you are smart enough to graduate, you can take a well-known review course and pass a bar exam; and if you can pass the bar exam, you’re a lawyer! So, it looks to me like the gatekeeper to our profession is not the board of examiners, but rather the admissions office of our law schools. If I’ve gotten you this far, and you agree, then what kind of folks are they admitting to law schools, and how do they decide who gets in?

I checked with some law school leaders and was met with the following responses (which I suggest to you may be sadly symptomatic):

“We get thousands of applications for hundreds of spaces; there is no way we can do background checks.”

“We’re in the education business, not the business of policing the profession” (i.e., “That’s not my job.”).

“We’re not sure everyone attending law school even wants to practice law.”

And perhaps the most disturbing response I received was a wonderfully candid admission that “We have even had highly successful students who admit in their third year (as they face the prospects of a bar application) that they misrepresented themselves on their law school application, or just downright lied about whether they had ever been arrested, convicted, or imprisoned.”

The dean went on to further explain his dilemma: “Now what do we do, after the student has spent thousands of dollars, worked his fanny off for two and a half years, and established a respectable academic record?”

Isolated case? I think not. I would argue that it happens more often than we would dare imagine. Do we care? We should. Which brings me to the main point I hope to leave with you: Are we doing (individually, as an association, and as a profession) all we can to establish an admission system that helps assure the public that we have done all we can to make sure only the brightest and best among us have the opportunity to join our noble profession and serve the public in the highest tradition of professionalism?

The easy answer is, “That’s someone else’s job,” and that we need only get rid of the bad apples when we find them. But you and I know how hard it is to get rid of bad apples after they have done so much damage (you fill in the blank) to the profession. Easier, I suggest, to more carefully “sort” the apples while they are on the conveyor belt.

“What can your association do for you?” A frequently asked question on member surveys. The No. 1, hands down, absolute, for-sure response is, “Improve the image of our profession.”

Your association (and mine, too) works hard to improve the image of the profession via pro bono services, environmental cleanups, disaster relief, lawyers in the schools ... just to mention a few. All are wonderful programs that need to be continued and expanded, but they are reactive, after the fact.

May I suggest that bar leaders need to focus more on the pipeline? Who is being trained, who will be admitted, and what can we do to address some important issues there—a proactive approach? I encourage you to take a look at your security system. Is it good enough? How could it be better?

Twenty years from now, in 2025, will someone say in your jurisdiction, “If they had only done something in 2005, we wouldn’t have this problem today”?

I welcome your comments—please e-mail me at [email protected].

—Allan B. Head, chair, ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services, and executive director, North Carolina Bar Association.


Several bar executives generously gave of their time and expertise during 2004 to assist their peer associations through the Bar Association Operational Survey program. Many, many thanks to:

John C. Norwine, Executive Director, Cincinnati Bar Association

Robert S. Wells, Executive Director, South Carolina Bar

David Blaner, Executive Director, Allegheny County Bar Association