Fake Lawyer Loses Job. Think deeper.

John Grisham’s The Rooster Bar is a novel.  That is, it’s a work of fiction.

Image result for the rooster bar images

The plot?

Without giving much away: three law students drop out of law school.  Under fake names, they pose as lawyers, open a law firm, and represent clients without ever having passed the bar exam or obtained law licenses.

Sometimes life imitates art.

Last week, an assistant public defender in Illinois was fired after a judge discovered that she did not have a license to practice law and had never passed the bar exam.  The law school grad had worked on “about 80 cases” since being hired last fall.  The ABA Journal,  Belleville News-DemocratEdwardsville Intelligencer and the Madison-St. Clair Record reported the story.

I considered posting this in the Was That Wrong? format.  For several reasons, I opted not to.  One of those reasons was my reaction to an aspect of the story,

Per the Madison-St. Clair Record, the non-lawyer’s former boss:

  • “said that he typically reviews the work of all staff, discussing with prosecutors and his own staff as to a defender’s competence.  There was ‘never anything that stood out to make me question her abilities,’ he said.”

Per the Edwardsville Intelligencer, the non-lawyer’s former boss “had no problem with [the non-lawyer’s] work . . . other than mistakes most new attorneys encounters.”

It makes me wonder: if she was providing competent legal services to her clients, what’s that say about the bar exam requirement?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not condoning the non-lawyer’s conduct.  It was infected with deceit and, as referenced in the news reports, might be criminal.  No matter our entry requirements, the privilege to practice law should be denied to people who lie to receive it and while exercising it.  Further, the non-lawyer’s decision to misrepresent herself as a licensed lawyer raises significant concern about her judgment, honesty, and trustworthiness.  If she’ll lie about having a law license, what else will she lie about?

But that’s a question for a character and fitness committee.

The fact remains that, for 8 months, she apparently provided competent representation to her clients despite never having passed the bar exam.

Small sample size?  Yup.  Maybe time would have proven she lacked minimal competence.

Still, I know for a fact that there are law grads here in Vermont who, unfortunately, have failed the bar exam too many times to be allowed to sit for it again.  Many did good, competent work in offices both pubilc and private while continuing to study to pass the exam.  In other words, despite track records of actual competence, track records of scoring too low on exams keep them from practicing law.  Most, understandably, have left the legal profession altogether.  I’m not sure why, but I can’t help but be reminded of this 2017 post in which I argued that we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good in the fight to increase access to legal services.

I started with Grisham.  I’ll end with Tolstoy, by way of Seinfeld and Edwin Starr.

In this scene, Elaine was wrong. The original title for War and Peace was not War, What Is It Good For?  Still, at least in the isolated incident involving the fake lawyer in Illinois, one might conclude that the bar exam was good for absolutely nothing.


3 thoughts on “Fake Lawyer Loses Job. Think deeper.

  1. The bar exam in no way prepares one to practice law. It provides some measurement of ability to retain and apply a large amount of information in a limited time, but practicing law like one would take the bar exam would be malpractice—not looking anything up, guessing at the best answer, outright making stuff up, and so on. The bar exam really tests memory, a little bit of analysis, and the ability to write a law-school-style essay exam.

    Gerry Spence failed the bar exam his first time taking it.

    I think this scenario is not the greatest example for getting rid of the bar exam for the reasons you mention. There’s way too much dishonesty here for my palate. But there’s a good point too. Is there any correlation between a bar exam score and competence to practice? Plenty of folks pass the bar exam and are later disbarred for incompetence.

    It’s a tough question because we have to have some measure to ensure a minimum level of competence but it seems almost like we’d be better off if the bar exam was more a “clinical” test and less a written and multiple-choice affair.


    • Great thoughts! I agree – in a way, using this scenario probably detracts from my larger point in that the dishonesty & deceit is so disturbingly & shockingly alarming. Still, for whatever reason, the story reminded me that we likely have many folks who could provide competent legal services – if they could only pass a standardize test. And, you make another fanastic point: but for lawyers who have passed the bar exam, disciplinary prosecutors wouldn’t exist! Thanks for your thoughts. Taking the Illinois “lawyer” out of it, the larger discussion is important.


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