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Richard J. Drake is the sort of prosperous, well-established attorney that hopeful young lawyers probably never heard of. Nevertheless, they must encounter Drake — and reassure him of their personal decency — as the final hurdle before admission to the bar in New York’s 2nd Department. Drake, of the Newburgh firm Drake, Sommers, Loeb, Tarshis, Catania & Liberth, is a district chairman of the Committee on Character and Fitness for the Appellate Division, 2nd Department, which includes Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the suburban counties of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, Rockland and Putnam. As a volunteer for interview duty since 1992, Drake has developed a fatherly understanding of applicants’ trepidation about their all-important appointments. “Basically, they’re very nervous,” he said. “Maybe they had problems back in their undergraduates years — a drug bust or some other type of fracas — and they don’t know what it might mean.” Most prospects take the July bar exam, Drake noted, with results made known in December. A successful candidate then fills out the 23-page application to the bar and waits several months more. “They get in their car, they drive to my office — and they don’t know what to expect,” Drake said. Unique among the state’s four judicial departments, the 1st Department (Manhattan and the Bronx) has since 2000 tried to take the fearful mystery out of the character and fitness process by hosting a mandatory orientation program for applicants. “It’s truth-telling and straight talk without us being scolds,” said committee chairman Peter J. Johnson Jr. Johnson, of the Manhattan firm Leahy & Johnson, said recent orientation speakers have included Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Deputy U.S. Attorney General James B. Comey. “It’s our responsibility to assist the court by reviewing these applications,” explained Patricia Vazzana, a solo practitioner in Rochester and a district chairwoman for the 4th Department’s committee. Applicants are asked a number of ethical questions, such as: � Have you ever been denied admission to any school, college, law school or other similar institution for stated cause which might reflect upon your character? � In connection with any employment, have you ever been discharged or requested to resign from or leave your position for cause? � Are you four months or more in arrears in payment of child support? Applicants also must report all arrests, indictments and convictions in criminal and civil proceedings — adult and juvenile alike. Committee chairs all agreed with Vazzana’s advice on responding to these and dozens of other personal questions. “Always err on the side of full disclosure,” she said, “even if you feel like you’re putting down too much on the application.” As a practical matter, she added, “If I see something like, ‘When I was in high school I was arrested because I was riding around in a car with my friends and they had beer,’ I’m impressed that they included that. It shows me the person is thinking seriously and long-term about his or her career.” SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES Failure to report embarrassing details from one’s past carries serious consequences. Witness the case of Staten Island attorney Stephen M. Canino, who was sanctioned in September by the 2nd Department Grievance Committee for making “materially false statements” on his bar application, according to a finding by the Appellate Division. Canino “deliberately failed” to disclose an internship in the Richmond County district attorney’s office, according to the finding, “inasmuch as he had reason to believe that such an affidavit would be unfavorable to his application.” His admission to the bar was revoked, and he must now re-apply and explain himself during a future interview. Canino’s misfortune aside, most applicants sail through the process. Johnson said that “far less than 1 percent” of applicants he sees are found wanting in character. And actually, he said, the process is more pleasant than might be expected. “There is probably nothing more joyous than ushering in a new lawyer,” said Johnson, who often hosts the 1st Department orientations. “We tell applicants the truth about practicing law, and we let them know about some of the pitfalls. But mostly, our orientation welcomes them and thanks them for their achievement.” Interviews, too, can be pleasant. “I enjoy meeting the young attorneys,” said Drake. “I always find something on their applications I can ask them about to put them at ease — a professor they mention whom I know, a certain neighborhood we might have in common. I try to make it casual.” But not too casual. “I don’t enjoy seeing someone come in unshaven,” said Drake, “or in an open-collared shirt.”

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