Another Committee on Character Anniversary

Due to my fifteen-year service on the Supreme Court of New Jersey Committee on Character, the date of any Supreme Court decision that implicates the Committee on Character is a significant date. On this date in 2000, the Supreme Court decided In re Jackman, 165 N.J. 580 (2000). The issues in that case, as summarized by Justice LaVecchia in her unanimous opinion for the Court, were “whether Steven B. Jackman, an applicant for admission to the bar of this State, engaged in the unauthorized practice of law while he was employed as an associate attorney in a New Jersey law firm prior to sitting for the New Jersey bar examination and whether that unauthorized practice renders him unfit to be admitted to practice.”

fter having started his legal career at a Boston firm and gaining admission to the Massachusetts Bar, Jackman became employed as a corporate associate by the Newark law firm now known as Sills Cummis & Gross. He planned to take the New Jersey Bar exam shortly after becoming employed there, but “withdrew from the exam at the request of the managing partner of Sills Cummis because his work was needed in connection with an unusually large transaction. The partner acknowledged that it would be a ‘good idea’ for Jackman to take the bar exam at some point, but told Jackman it was not necessary for him to take the New Jersey bar exam to practice corporate law in New Jersey.

Jackman stayed at Sills Cummis for nearly seven years, becoming a senior associate. He “handled mergers and acquisitions and general corporate law matters. He prepared and signed legal documents, counseled clients, and negotiated with other attorneys on behalf of his clients. He never appeared in court and never signed pleadings in any litigated matters.”

Passed over for partnership at Sills Cummis, Jackman left that firm for a New York firm. That firm told him to take the New York Bar exam. He did so, also taking the New Jersey Bar exam at that time. He passed the New Jersey Bar exam, but the Committee on Character recommended that his admission to the Bar be withheld because he had committed the unauthorized practice of law for the nearly seven years that he spent at Sills Cummis.

Most actions of the Committee on Character do not result in published opinions by the Supreme Court. This one, however, did.

Justice LaVecchia first concluded that Jackman had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law even though he had not handled litigation matters. “As an associate at Sills Cummis, Jackman clearly was practicing law in New Jersey. He acknowledged this at the hearing and conceded the same before this Court. The fact that he may not have appeared in court, but worked on transactional matters, does not affect that conclusion. The practice of law in New Jersey is not limited to litigation. [Citation]. One is engaged in the practice of law whenever legal knowledge, training, skill, and ability are required.” In addition to citing New Jersey cases, Justice LaVecchia relied on comparable cases from other jurisdictions.

he Court rejected two arguments that Jackman made in seeking to justify his conduct. First, he asserted that he relied on the advice of the managing partner in deciding not to take the New Jersey Bar exam soon after he joined Sills Cummis. That reliance “was misplaced. The duty to be knowledgeable about and compliant with bar admission and practice requirements is a personal one. An applicant for admission cannot have his past errors excused by simply pointing to another member of his firm, albeit a managing partner, upon whose word he relied. Jackman testified that he never personally inquired about his need for bar admission in New Jersey by contacting any official connected with the regulation of bar admissions in New Jersey. He was remiss in this failure to ensure that at all times he was compliant with the conditions that attach to the privilege of licensure as an attorney in this State.”

Second, Jackman contended that “there are other lawyers practicing in New Jersey law firms without having become licensed in New Jersey. Further, Jackman “point[ed] to the national debate concerning licensure issues implicated by the modern multi-jurisdictional practice generally, and specifically in the area of transactional law practice.” Justice LaVecchia acknowledged that such issues were under discussion. But “[t]hat ongoing national discussion has nothing to do with this case. We have not amended our rules. Our practice requirements are straightforward and may not be ignored. Unless and until we amend our rules governing admission to practice, the existing rules must be followed.”

The Court proceeded to “agree with the Committee on Character that Jackman’s earlier failure to abide by the details of our admission and practice rules reflected negatively on his fitness to practice.” But Justice LaVecchia “note[d] that Jackman’s application to be admitted to the bar in New Jersey has been pending since the July 1999 bar examination. The delay in his certification should underscore to this candidate the seriousness with which we view his earlier improper practice and his failure to be responsible in discerning his personal obligation to satisfy our admission and practice requirements.” Given the time that had passed, the Court directed that Jackman could be certified for admission to the Bar on January 2, 2001, about one month after the Court’s ruling.

This decision points up the importance of a Bar candidate being familiar with applicable rules, principles, and procedures surrounding Bar admission. Candidates cannot safely rely on others in their legal organization, family members who are lawyers, or laypeople in connection with Bar admission. In many cases, it is essential to retain independent counsel who are experienced in the area of Bar admissions and Committee on Character practice. Failing to do so can result in denial of admission or, at the very least, unwanted delays in Bar admission.