WARNING: You MUST carefully read the prompt in each law school application to ensure that you report all and only those incidents that a law school asks you to report.
ANOTHER WARNING: Tell the truth!
Character & Fitness
State bar associations and state law convey to lawyers, by virtue of a license to practice law, special privileges – specifically, to represent important legal rights of others. Because this privilege puts lawyers in a position of great trust, state bar examiners investigate the personal and professional histories of all those who apply to become members of the state bar. The powers of state bar examiners to investigate your history vary from state to state, but you should prepare for them to review your history thoroughly to investigate what they call your “character and fitness” to practice law. You should prepare for this now by keeping a log of your personal history.
Because law schools do not want to admit applicants who might run into character and fitness issues with the bar examiners after law school, all law school applications ask you to report your own criminal history in your law school application and to do so via an addendum, commonly called a “Character & Fitness” addendum.
Effect on Application
The vast majority of criminal offenses will not affect your application at all for the vast majority of law schools. However, the following exceptions exist.
- Crimes of Moral Turpitude. These offenses involve dishonesty – think theft or fraud. Such offenses scare law school into thinking that you one day will abuse the power of your position as a lawyer to engage in similar nefarious behaviors.
- Pattern of Behavior. An admissions officer told me that two alcohol related offenses would not hurt an applicant applying to his law school at all. Three such offenses would create some concern and four would make the admissions officer think that the applicant has a substance abuse problem. Drug offenses work the same way. For law schools that require applicants to report minor traffic violations, only “blatant disregard for the law” would hurt an applicant’s probability of admittance. But, who knows what that means.
- Academic Dishonesty. Legitimate charges of academic dishonesty typically hurt an applicant’s probability of admittance quite substantially. I will create another post on academic dishonesty and the difference between legitimate and not so legitimate charges of academic dishonesty.
Before you allow fear about the ways that your past incidents will affect your law school applications raise your blood pressure, please consider the following.
- A Tier 1 law school offered one of my students a full scholarship despite his two simultaneously pending DWIs. In other words, the courts had resolved neither of his cases yet.
- A Tier 1 law school offered another one of my students a full scholarship despite over 30 criminal charges, including drug and alcohol related offenses, assault, and a weapons charge. Fortunately, 8 years has passed since his most recent charge, creating confidence in the admissions officers that he had left his criminal career behind.
The state bar issued both of people above law licenses. So neither law school admissions officers nor state law examiners really let these criminal histories affect your applications to law school or the state bar unless your history is very significant and very recent. I have witnessed more applicants hurt themselves by trying to hide their negative histories than by actually reporting that history.
Applicants must report all criminal incidents via an addendum to the law school application, including arrests, tickets, citations, and convictions.
Because the exclusions vary from one law school application to the next, you may have two or three versions of your addendum to accommodate the varying reporting requirements. Also, the language on the law school application itself can confuse the applicant, making a determination on what information the law school wants very difficult.
- Minor traffic violations [Almost all law schools allow applicants to exclude minor traffic violations. However, neither DWI nor reckless driving qualifies as a minor traffic violation.]
- Incidents that occurred while the applicant was under the age of 18 [Very common exclusion]
- Incidents & cases that have been expunged. [Rare exclusion, so you will have to report expunged incidents to the vast majority of law schools.]
- Cases that do not result in a conviction. [Rare exclusion, so you will have to report cases that did not result in a conviction to the vast majority of law schools.]
- When in doubt about whether you need to report an event, fess up. If you fail to report something that you should have reported, you look very dishonest. If you report something that the application did not require, then you seem very honest.
- Write a very dry, forgettable summary of events. Admissions officers simply want to know the facts. Leave out details, such as the time of day of the incident if those details make the situation seem worse. Overwhelm the reader with dry facts. For example, include the exact date of your arrest, the arresting agency, the time of day, the precise legal disposition of the case, the date of the legal disposition of the case, the number of days of community service that you were assigned, etcetera.
- Do not apologize or provide excuses. Own up.
The following examples came from former students who did a solid job of writing up their incidents. Admissions officers never asked for further detail regarding these incidents and the applicants’ applications seemed to have not been affected at all by these incidents.