I recited the required oath and officially became a Texas lawyer on November 30, 2021. After starting the process in 2019, and delaying it a few times to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, I sat for the Texas Bar in February 2021.
On its face, it all seems like a pretty fair timeline. However, consider a request that the Texas Board of Law Examiners asked of me in March 2020. For background, I spent three years of my legal career in D.C. after graduating from law school in Louisiana. At the time, the only jurisdiction where I was admitted to practice law was Louisiana. The inquiry from the Texas Board of Law Examiners sought greater clarity on this discrepancy — they asked me to prove that the time that I spent in D.C. constituted ‘lawful practice.’
I wrote out a response and shared it within several weeks.
After another few weeks, I heard back and learned that the Texas Board of Law Examiners found this explanation to be insufficient. Accordingly, they instructed me to reach out to the D.C. Bar and report back with an official blessing from them on letterhead. I contacted the D.C. Bar Committee on Unauthorized Practice of Law in June 2020, having recently deferred my July 2020 bar application to the fall. Of note, in my original application, the electronic system used by the Texas Board of Law Examiners still indicated that I had not resolved the ‘proof of lawful practice issue.’
The months came and went. I pushed back the test administration one more time to February 2021, to accommodate my full-time work schedule and figure out life amid a global health crisis. I communicated with the D.C. Bar Committee a few times. They asked me to complete a questionnaire to gain further clarity on my work from 2016-2019, which felt pretty standard.
In December 2020, as I recovered from COVID-19, the representative from the D.C. Bar Committee shot me a line to explain their thinking. They appreciated my explanation, but the relevant rule requires for lawyers licensed in other jurisdictions to apply for admission to the D.C. Bar within 90 days of commencing their practice at a physical office in D.C. It was a routine mistake, but it was a mistake nonetheless. To resolve the matter, they proposed that I pay the equivalent of the dues that I would’ve paid to the D.C. Bar from 2016 to 2019.
This made sense to me, especially as I dealt with the stress of surviving COVID-19, still working full-time, and preparing for the February Bar. I verbally agreed and awaited the agreement to sign.
Several weeks after that conversation, and a few weeks before the bar exam, the representative looped back. He explained that since I did not have an active account with the D.C. Bar, I could pay the back dues to a non-profit organization called the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center. He forwarded the agreement, I signed it in February, took the bar later that month, and made the donation in March. That day, I submitted the agreement and proof of payment to the Texas Board of Law Examiners, in lieu of a letter from the D.C. Bar.
Let me take a slight step back to explain an essential component of bar admissions. Each jurisdiction is tasked with determining whether bar applicants have the ‘character & fitness’ to practice law in a particular state. The investigations can be wide-ranging and expansive. In certain instances, the investigators may examine a person’s conduct in high school.
Up to the point of submission of the D.C. materials, my character and fitness to practice law in Texas had been approved. On March 18, 2021, the director of character and fitness of the Texas Board of Law Examiners wrote me a letter. She indicated that my preliminary character and fitness approval would be temporarily rescinded. Her team sought more information from me about the D.C. investigation over the next two and a half months. It all culminated in me receiving this:
The Texas Board of Law Examiners issued a negative preliminary determination letter to me on June 11, 2021. Their argument centered on me never applying for admission to the D.C. Bar and not disclosing the investigation that led to the agreement — the outreach that they asked me to make.
With the tremendous support of my boss at Texas Appleseed, I hired a lawyer and approached the process with earnest zeal, even as I felt deep apprehension about it.
As we prepared for a hearing on November 18, 2021, we gathered letters from various folks of significance in my life. In total, 20 letters comprised my evidence packet. 13 lawyers wrote incredible reflections on my fundamental character. My parents, niece, aunt, and aunt’s boyfriend came to Austin on the 17th. My aunt and her boyfriend kept my niece in the space below the conference room, and my parents joined me in the conference room where the hearing took place.
The opening statements proceeded, and the board attorney emphasized that my conduct was serious enough — from their perspective — to warrant the determination that I would never possess the requisite character and fitness to practice law in Texas.
The three-judge panel of the Texas Board of Law Examiners instantly grilled the board attorney. They lifted up the fundamental fact that I argued — didn’t the staff know about the investigation because they asked the applicant to follow up with the D.C. Bar? The board attorney fumbled over the timeline and couldn’t clarify whether the argument was that I didn’t disclose the investigation or that I didn’t timely notify them. He then questioned me for 40 minutes, incessantly asking if I applied for the D.C. Bar – a fact that I admitted to and noted that I should have done.
My lawyer called my boss, my father, my mother, and me. Each person delivered heartfelt and authentic reflections on who I am and the good character I possess. The board attorney had no questions for anyone but me, but he still asked the three-judge panel to permanently decertify my character & fitness.
Within fifteen minutes of the conclusion of the hearing — in the time it took for me and my aunt’s boyfriend to pull the cars around from the garage — my lawyer walked out with my family and flashed a thumbs up. The three-judge panel unanimously certified my character & fitness to practice law in Texas — free and clear.
Now that I’m three weeks removed from it, and I recognize how costly, unnecessary, and very racist the process was, I feel compelled to tell my story and also seek out the stories of others who may have endured similar mistreatment. Since character & fitness investigations are so lock & key, and they involve the most intimate details of a person’s life and career, I understand that many folks may be reluctant to share. However, I have a deep hunch that character & fitness investigations are largely used to exclude the historically underrepresented in the legal profession. I especially want to hear from Black attorneys and law school students.
Shoot me a line — andrew[at]andrewrhairston[dot]com
You’ll all hear more from me soon. In the meantime, keep seeking racial justice in all that you do.