How Law School Applicants Can Address Criminal, Disciplinary Incidents

A skeleton in your closet is no reason to give up on a dream of practicing law.

Every year’s crop of law school graduates includes many who interacted with the justice system, were subject to disciplinary procedures at their college or workplace, or were put on academic probation. Some even committed felonies and served time in prison. Overcoming such setbacks might have shaped such individuals into extraordinarily committed and caring lawyers.

Nevertheless, it can be tricky and unsettling to decide how to disclose past disciplinary incidents on your law school application.

Severe infractions may indeed jeopardize your chances of admission to either law school or the bar, particularly those that reflect poorly on your personal integrity. Examples include fraud, abuse of authority, sexual misconduct, plagiarism or ethical violations. Law school applicants unsure of whether their past troubles may disqualify them from legal practice should consult a lawyer specializing in disciplinary matters, as this article is not intended as legal advice.

[READ: The Cardinal Sins of Law School Applications.]

For minor incidents like traffic tickets, disciplinary infractions or juvenile issues cleared from the record, read application instructions carefully to determine whether they require disclosure. Law schools vary in what applicants need to disclose, and some want to hear about anything more serious than a parking fine. If your memories are fuzzy, obtain all documentation possible — including school or police records — before assessing whether a past infraction meets the threshold for disclosure.

It may feel silly to describe a decade-old speeding ticket or citation for disorderly conduct, but it’s best to err on the side of disclosure. Assume that law schools will do a background check that will turn up any incidents on your record. The risk of appearing untruthful about your past is much worse than any embarrassment from oversharing. Don’t risk having your admissions offer revoked if the skeletons in your closet come to light.

If your issue is minor, describe it in a brief, straightforward and candid addendum. Strive for a professional tone that shows you accept responsibility for your actions, without melodrama or making excuses. Be specific about the exact nature and circumstances of the infraction and outcome, including any penalties. For example, if you got a ticket for a rolling stop and paid it in full, say just that.

Gray Areas

Of course, not all incidents are as black and white as bribery and speeding tickets.

[READ: How to Write a Resume for Law School Applications.]

It can be difficult, even painful, to relate emotionally charged memories that may involve trauma. Perhaps when you think back to the time you were caught with illegal drugs in high school, your mind floods with vivid memories of the peer pressure you felt from friends, the contempt you felt from law enforcement and the shame you felt when your parents picked you up at the police station.

For a law school admissions officer, however, the basic facts of the case matter more than the surrounding circumstances and your subjective experience. Try to plainly recount the incident, any charges or penalties, how it was resolved and lessons learned.

Unless such incidents are severe, recurrent or otherwise cast doubt on your character or judgment, they are unlikely to weigh against your chance of admission. Rather than try to minimize or explain away an embarrassment from your past, your best strategy is to address it forthrightly. Your contrition and professionalism should communicate that you learned from your mistakes and moved on.

However, if the incident in question marked a turning point in your life or did define who you are, consider making it the subject of a personal statement or optional diversity statement.

[READ: See 2 Successful Law School Diversity Statements.]

For example, perhaps you were caught up in a life-threatening addiction or law enforcement misconduct that changed your life’s course and informed your decision to pursue a legal career. In such cases, it might make sense to provide more background detail about the circumstances of the incident and your resulting feelings, thoughts, actions and reactions. Still, be careful to keep your tone free of self-pity or self-aggrandizement.

Few people deserve to be defined by their worst mistakes. Just as a humane law system should allow for second chances, law schools appreciate those who own up to their past and are focused on their future. If your path to becoming a lawyer included recovering from a major wrong turn, keep that in mind when clients look to you for help getting their lives back on track.

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