The character and fitness questions have begun. This time of year is when I start getting many questions from students about the character and fitness questions on law school applications. You know the ones–they ask whether you’ve ever been charged with a crime, or whether you’ve been accused of academic dishonesty, or whether you’ve ever been on academic probation. Some schools will even ask about your traffic or parking tickets–hey, lawyers are nothing if not thorough. Please, please, take a moment to review this post about these questions.
Why do they care? Consider this from a law school’s perspective. The pressure is on law schools not only to admit a class of quality students, but to help their graduates find jobs at the end. They want to admit students who will be admitted to the bar. A history of criminal charges, multiple issues involving substance abuse, academic dishonesty, or a tendency towards violence suggest impaired or poor judgment at best and potential problems passing the character and fitness investigation to be admitted to any state’s bar. Law students are certainly making a huge investment in their future by attending law school–but the law school itself is also highly invested in making sure its students and graduates succeed. Each party’s future depends on graduates’ success.
How should you answer these questions? Before even looking at the questions on the application, you should know that your law school application will be reviewed when you later apply to any state’s Board of Admission to the Bar. If the Board of Admission to the Bar finds discrepancies or omissions, you will have to answer to the character and fitness committee and to their satisfaction–or they will not allow you to sit for their state’s bar exam. You should also know that the Board of Admissions to the Bar defines an “omission” as a lie.
Read the application’s questions carefully. 90% of the questions I receive are clearly answered in the law school’s question or instructions. Carefully review the question. Most of the time, the issue is not that the question is unclear; it’s that the applicant just doesn’t want to answer it. However, if you are still uncertain, then…
Ask for clarification. If you have questions or you don’t understand whether the question encompasses your situation, call the admissions office of the school. Ask them for clarification–they are the ones who wrote the question, so they should be able to explain what they are looking for. Believe me when I say that they have seen it all. Your situation will not shock them.
This may sound surprising, but I do not believe that students should be seeking legal advice with regard to these questions. First of all, you’ll note that many law school applications will clearly state that it is the applicant’s responsibility to provide full answers, even if advised against doing so by a lawyer or other party. The Board of Admissions to the Bar will say the same thing–it is YOUR responsibility to fully answer the questions. Secondly (in my opinion), if the situation is serious enough that you sought legal counsel, then it’s serious enough that a law school should know about it, as should the Board of Admissions to the Bar.
When in doubt, disclose. Law schools have seen it all, from underage drinking tickets to public urination (which is more common than you’d think, apparently), to felonies. Your situation is not as shocking to them as you think. Disclosing now will prevent problems passing the bar in the future…so when in doubt, just do it. Or would you rather discover at the end of law school that your history prevents you from sitting for the bar in your preferred state?
And…it doesn’t stop with your bar admission! Law is a highly regulated field. As lawyers we have access to extremely sensitive confidential information and we serve as fiduciaries for our clients. Practicing law is a privilege, not a right, and it is appropriate that the judgment and integrity of lawyers (as well as lawyers-to-be) are considered.