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Applying to Law School with a Record

We’ve all been there. Dead prostitute in the trunk, 15 pounds of black tar heroin, and a busted tail light. When those sirens started blaring, you put the pedal to the metal and headed for the border. Unfortunately, you forgot you were in the Midwest and had only a few miles left in the tank. You were planning on trading some of that smack for gas, I guess.

In all seriousness, some of you out there will be applying with some type of record. Whether it’s for jaywalking pants-less or running a Ponzi scheme, you’ve got a few additional considerations during the application process.

Before I go into any details, I’m going to give you a rule of thumb. When in doubt, disclose the offense. Seriously. Any doubt in your mind, whatsoever, as to whether you should tell the school about your record should make you disclose.

So, first things first: should you disclose? See the previous paragraph. Then, consider the question as presented to you on the form. Some schools ask for convictions, others ask for any charges even if dismissed, while others ask for a DNA sample and fingerprints and consent to run an FBI level background check (well, maybe not). Whatever they ask for, provide them. If you’re not sure whether you fall under the question, call up the office, or just go ahead and disclose (since that’s the safest route anyway).

How do you disclose? With an addendum. Clearly present the facts. And not the facts as your defense attorney would present them. Put yourself in the cop’s/prosecution’s shoes. Don’t say that you may or may not have been guilty. Don’t say that it could have gone either way. You’re guilty, own up to it. Even if you were acquitted, own up to putting yourself in the situation that led to the charges being filed. It’s never the cop’s fault; it’s always your own. Demonstrate remorse, growth since that time (hopefully there are a few years), and what you’ve done since then to improve yourself. Hopefully, you’ll have some volunteer work or AA meetings (for an alcohol related charge) under your belt to alleviate fears.

How will it affect your bar application? I’m in no way qualified to answer that question. Find an attorney in your area who specializes in this area and drop a few hundred to ask them. It’ll be a drop in the bucket compared to tuition, and it will give you a solid answer as to whether or not you’ll be able to gain admission to the bar with those charges. (This assumes that you disclose. Which you should. Otherwise, you’ll just be screwed).

In all honesty, most charges/convictions won’t negatively affect you in the application process, as long as you’re honest about them (violent and fraud charges are two of the exceptions). Schools realize that everyone makes mistakes, and it’s how you handle them that defines you. If you have a possession charge from high school, volunteer at a Drug Free program at a school. That reflects positively on you, as you’ve now handled a roadblock (self-created, but a roadblock nonetheless) in a positive manner.

If you lie about them, however, you’re in for a world of pain. If the school finds out, they will withdraw your acceptance, remove you from the wait list, or possibly kick you out if you already started classes. If you get through law school, the Character and Fitness determination on the bar will find out about it and will not allow you to join. That means you just dropped $150K for a piece of paper. Hope you can find some matches to keep you warm, because that’s all the degree will be good for.