Applying To Law School With Disciplinary Action

We’re not perfect. Well, at least most of us aren’t. A lot of LSAT test takers made mistakes when they were younger and more immature that could be anything from a fraternity prank gone awry to a drunk driving infraction. So is it true? After all those long hard months of studying to get that great LSAT score, could a mistake made several years back kill your law school dreams?

This is a question that thousands of applicants have each year, and the quick answer is yes and no. While it is important to distinguish yourself on your law school apps so that you are an individual outside of just your GPA and LSAT score, it is equally important to not distinguish yourself in a negative way.

The way questions about a criminal record, and collegiate disciplinary action are asked, there is really not much of a gray area. Virtually all applications ask you to disclose even matters that have been expunged or that have been removed from your transcript. A lot of applicants think that if matters have been expunged, they are safe to not disclose. The truth is that this could not be further from the truth. Lying on your law school application can be grounds for future disciplinary action, and even expulsion. Law school is stressful enough with the financial pressures and intense competition that having to spend three years constantly worrying, “Will they find out?” can not only be a profound distraction from your academics, but take a tremendous toll on your happiness in and out of the classroom.

Further, the bar association does go into depth in researching all those who apply, and they CAN find out about criminal and academic records even if such records have been removed. Lawyers are expected to uphold a certain moral and ethical code, and it simply will not bode well if one of the first tangible steps that you took towards becoming a lawyer in applying to law schools was built upon a lie. Imagine shelling out 200k for law school, and doing great in the classroom, but not being able to practice law, because you failed to answer a simple question honestly. Moreover, one can even have their legal license revoked if it comes out years later that they lied on their law school application. If you can spend your career under this level of stress, power to you, but I think it is clear that the intelligent decision is to be completely forthcoming.

So now that we have established that the prudent choice is to be completely forthcoming, what things can you do to minimize the influence that this will have on your law school admissions? The first thing is the addendum or a statement of explanation to put the infraction(s) into context. Virtually all law school apps will ask you to attach an addendum to explain your criminal record and/or collegiate disciplinary record. In composing this addendum, you likely will want to do the following:

1.) Briefly and concisely explain what happened – this is not the time to add in your own
interpretations; just write what happened.

2.) TAKE FULL RESPONSIBILITY – do not talk about how you were framed or hint that
there was a conspiracy – just (wo)man up, and take responsibility for your actions.

3.) Put this mistake into context – was there some kind of personal or familial
circumstance that may have influenced your judgment?

4.) Briefly list how you have changed since these infractions took place, and why the law
school should trust that you won’t revert back to your bad habits.

Additionally, the letter of recommendations offer another opportunity for applicants to put such infractions in better context. While applicants typically want a professor who can speak to their academic prowess, applicants with “baggage” may also want a professor/adviser/employer who can speak about their character. After all, you will technically be able to submit three or four letters of recommendations so you may want to have at least one come from someone who knows you well, and can honestly paint a picture of you that is distinct from that which your infraction(s) may imply.

So what influence will past mistakes have on your law school admission? As weird as it may sound, applying to law school with disciplinary action is quite analogous to a professional athlete shooting for a big contract with disciplinary action.

Disciplinary action and applying to law school is quite analogous to being a professional athlete who faced disciplinary action.

If Albert Pujols were arrested today, and spent the rest of the season in a federal prison (but was released next year) would this influence his contract for next year? The most likely scenario is yes, but it wouldn’t influence it too much. He would still likely be the highest paid first baseman in the league, but he might not receive the record breaking contract he seeks.

In the NFL, Vick’s “baggage” certainly played a role in his only receiving a one year offer. That said it is still an above average contract for a starter, and there were other factors involved (older, being injury prone, etc.) Further, his actions greatly angered the public, and might actually drive some fans away where as a law school applicants baggage is likely under the radar – i.e. the law school isn’t hurt. Still, no one will argue Vick would not have made more money had he never went to jail.

So the answer is yes, there will be an impact on applications. Some schools will flat out reject you, because of them much like some professional sport teams flat out reject a player who has some character concerns as it goes against their team philosophy. However, this does not mean you’ll automatically be shunned out of the top tier, and be forced to attend a tier four with an LSAT score in the 170s. The fact is that this is not the case, as different schools and even different admission officers within those schools have different philosophies. There is no system, “We’re top 25 so we can’t accept an applicant with baggage” or “We’re a tier 4 so we can accept applicants with disciplinary action.” In fact, there is little correlation between ranking, and feeling on disciplinary action. This is much like how some top sport franchises won’t take on character concerns, while others really just evaluate the athlete as a player on the field.

Also, like sports talent does sometimes supersede character. There are many great character ball players who can’t get a job, while Ray Lewis who may have killed a man was the highest paid defensive player for a while after this – nobody mentioned what he did as all they could focus on was that 2000 superbowl. Law school is similar. Just like how that great applicant who saved orphans and started a charity with a 2.5 and 145 will likely be rejected from School A, an applicant with a 4.0 and 180 who did something egregious will likely be too good to pass up.

Of course, people tend to change and mature, and most law schools do forgive mistakes if they believe an applicant really changed. After all, we live in a society that is quite forgiving to those who are forthcoming in their transgressions, and do not revert back to them. A player like Josh Hamilton comes to mind as someone who made some pretty egregious mistakes, but nobody would argue that his prior addiction to crack cocaine will stand in the way of a twenty million dollar contract (his back problems might!) Rather, some teams might even see his journey of overcoming his drug addiction as a great marketing ploy, and many fans like him more because of it – if anything he’s at least more interesting, a trait that top law schools favor a great deal.

In closing, the major disadvantage you can expect to find with your disciplinary action is inconsistency. For the vast majority of applicants, their numbers tend to predict their admission prospects with great accuracy. For those who apply with disciplinary action, there is no such thing as an auto-admit. One can easily be admitted into several top ten schools, and rejected from several tier threes – it all depends on how the person reading your app feels about your transgressions, which is simply impossible to predict. Therefore, if you have disciplinary action it is especially important to apply to a wide array of schools.

Finally, law schools may sometimes forgive transgressions that the bar association will not. Consequently, it is prudent to contact the bar associations in the states you would like to practice in, and examine whether your infractions will impact your ability to practice law in your chosen region.

So DISCLOSE EVERYTHING, and put the same amount of thought and time in your addendum that you will put into your personal statement.



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