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Important Words to Look for in Law School Application Disclosures

Today’s post comes to us from our friends at Anna Ivey Consulting.

Every law school application I know of asks about some mix-and-match of criminal disclosures.

And every school asks differently, so there is no “universal” disclosure for all schools. They could make one if they wanted, but they choose not to. So for now, you’re stuck reading each question carefully and making sure you answer it accurately. It’s very possible that you end up having to check “yes” for some schools and and “no” for others depending on what they’re asking for in their disclosure questions.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the law school application forms assume you’ve gone to law school before you’ve actually gone to law school. These terms are quite technical, and you might not now whether what you did or what was done to you constitutes an “arrest,” a “charge,” or a “conviction,” for example.

This post is all about helping you figure out what the key words in the disclosure questions are, and how to figure out what a particular school is asking you to disclose. (They are law schools, after all, so the precise language they use does matter.)

Some schools ask about convictions only, but others also ask about charges, and still others also ask about arrests. If you were the subject of a diversionary program, you might think you get a pass and don’t have to disclose any of that stuff, because you might assume your diversionary program made any arrests/charges/convictions magically go away. You can’t make that assumption.

When you’re looking at the disclosure questions and doing the analysis, do not confuse the answers to any particular trigger word (arrest, charge, conviction, etc.) with a program like diversion, which is a particular form of punishment or an alternative to conventional punishment. Arrests/charges/convictions are separate things from diversion, and most application forms don’t even mention diversion.

Instead, take the analysis one step at a time in the following way, using the trigger words of the application question:

1. Arrest – Did a law enforcement agency take you into custody and process you for a specified crime? Unless this happened, there was no arrest.

2. Charge – Did a court issue a document alleging that you committed a crime? Unless there was some formal allegation of wrongdoing (a “charge”), and you were arraigned (notified in court in a formal hearing) of those allegations, then there was not a “charge.”

3. Conviction – Did you go through a formal, in-court process where you waived your rights and accepted responsibility by pleading guilty? This would be a “guilty plea.” Alternatively, did you have a trial (by a judge or a jury) that resulted in a finding that you were guilty of one or more charges? This would also qualify as a conviction. Note that in most cases, a “diversion program” is designed to prevent a person from having to either plead guilty or go through a trial that could result in a conviction. The theory of these programs is that in exchange for agreeing to do community service or some other alternative punishment, the person is “diverted” from the traditional legal process that might result in a conviction.

diversionary program could be:

  • Offered before an arrest – instead of arresting you, they only “cite” you for a crime and tell you to attend a diversionary program. This usually only happens in driving cases.
  • Offered before a charge is issued so that you don’t have charges in your record – so you might have been arrested, but then rather than being formally charged, you are given the diversionary program alternative.
  • Offered after a charge is issued and you are arraigned to avoid a conviction  – you might be arrested and charged in court but then may avoid conviction by doing a diversionary program.
  • Offered after a conviction to avoid some more severe penalty (e.g. “attend this program instead of going to jail”).

Bottom line: You still have to figure out whether you were arrested, charged, or convicted (or whatever else the application is asking about) and disclose those as required, whether or not you participated in a diversionary program. If you check the “yes” box for any of those disclosure triggers, you can and should mention the diversionary program in the required explanation that you’ll have to attach to the application.

Important caveat: If you’re not sure about the specifics of your case, you need to consult the jurisdiction where you think you were arrested, charged, or convicted, and get as much in writing as possible for your records. You might also need to hire a lawyer to get further clarification if you’re not sure how to interpret your records. We are helping you decode the application form questions, not giving legal advice. And if in doubt, err in favor of disclosure. Hope that helps!

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of Ivey Consulting. She and her team help college, law school, and MBA applicants make smart decisions about their higher education and navigate the application process. She is the author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions and How to Prepare a Standout College Application, and also serves on the leadership team of the non-profit Service to School.