To Disclose or Not to Disclose: a Pre-Law Conundrum

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I hear some of you pre-law students out there have been having a good time. Too good of a time, if truth be told. And now you might be forced to check that “Yes” box next to one of the Character and Fitness questions on your applications. I’m sure all you pre-law trouble-makers have some questions, so here are some answers.

1) Do I have to disclose?

Your default answer to this is “Yes”. Without knowing anything else about your pre-law situation, I default to this answer. If you don’t disclose when you should, you’ll have issues sitting for the bar. If you disclose when you shouldn’t, you really won’t see much of a downside at all. So default to full disclosure. Even those crimes that were expunged from your record.

Now, that being said, some of the questions will leave you some wiggle room. If it only asks for convictions, only tell them of crimes which you were charged, prosecuted and convicted pre-law. If they say to skip moving violations, don’t list every speeding ticket (though if they ask for everything, throw those speeding tickets on the list). But, again, include things expunged.

If you’re not sure, it’s better to disclose your pre-law shenanigans than withhold them.

2) How will this information affect my application?

In all honesty, all that fun you had pre-law probably won’t affect you much at all. If they didn’t let people who drank too much into law school, well, at the very least, most of my friends would have been rejected.

A minor in possession charge? They won’t care. Speeding tickets? Maybe if it calls into question your ability to read signs, but a reasonable amount won’t raise any eyebrows. Murder? Well, you can always apply to Tulane.

The law schools are asking this question for the following three purposes, which relate directly to how they’ll use the information:

A) They want to make sure you can pass the Character and Fitness portion of the bar.

They want graduates to practice law, and if they don’t think you’ll be able to sit for it because of your pre-law activities, that’s a big deal. In general, it takes more than a Public Intoxication for that to happen. However, if you have any questions about your eligibility, you should contact a local professional who has expertise in the area. Preferably pre-law school, so you don’t spend $200K just to be told you’re screwed.

Also, the State Bar will check your answers on your applications against the background check they run. Don’t lie, because that’s a bigger issue to them than shoplifting.

B) They want to make sure you haven’t done anything pre-law school to seriously call into question your character.

Drinking while you’re at a frat party at 19? Being in a frat might call your character into question (I kid), but that won’t raise any red flags. Speeding tickets, public intoxication, minor possession charges — obviously, none of these are ideal if you’re pre-law. However, they also don’t make me think your character is weak.

Fraud, embezzlement, major theft, and assault, on the other hand, are crimes of moral turpitude and will raise red flags. Don’t do any of these pre-law school (or post-law school, for that matter).

C) They want to make sure that you haven’t engaged in a pattern of behavior, pre-law school, that calls your character into question.

A single speeding ticket usually won’t raise red flags. Twenty-five speeding tickets pre-law school, however, is a troubling (though impressive) pattern displaying a disregard for authority and the law.

Multiple alcohol-related offenses pre-law school? Again, this calls into question your judgment and ability to control yourself.

If you have enough infractions to establish a pattern, then you might have a problem. Too many alcohol-related offenses pre-law? Sign up for AA meetings, and volunteer at programs. A slew of speeding tickets? Stop driving too fast, and volunteer with MADD.

3) So how do I mitigate the infractions committed pre-law school?

The best way is to have a significant period of time between your last infraction and your application. If you were convicted of a DUI last week, you’re not a significantly different person. If you were convicted of shoplifting when you were 12, you probably grew up quite a bit in the interim.

Also, volunteer in a capacity that demonstrates remorse. DUI? Attend AA meetings and sign up for a program to talk with high school students about the idiocy of driving drunk. Theft? Repay all debts before law school, and maybe volunteer with a neighborhood watch program. Prostitution? I hear some churches offer re-virgination rituals. So I guess find God?

And, most importantly, comply with everything to which the court sentences you, and then some.

Finally, write an addendum to attach to your application. Most schools will ask all pre-law students who check the “Yes” box to do this anyway.

This essay should do three things:

1) Completely answer any questions I might have about the situation. Who, what, when, where, why, etc. If you show it to someone and they still ask a question about the event, write more.

2) Explain the outcome of court proceedings, as well as your compliance with the sentence.

3) Show of contrition.

So, in short, don’t blame anyone else (even if it wasn’t your weed). Take full responsibility. Admit to being an idiot pre-law school. Assure the law school that you won’t do it again (bonus points for backing this up with a lot of time between now and the infraction, more if you’ve done non-court mandated community service).

And that’s really all there is to do for all you pre-law convicts.

Good luck!

28 Responses

  1. […] and Fitness?- If you’re struggling with the Character and Fitness questions on your applications, Most Strongly Supported can help you out. It’s always safer to disclose than withhold information, “even those crimes […]

  2. Al says:

    3 speeding tix (08, 09, 10/11(can’t remember)), one failure to make a stop prior to right turn (09), one jaywalking/obstructing traffic (09), one texting(12), and another “holding a mobile device” that later turned into a failure to appear/pay because I extended payment and then moved across the country and forgot about it but paid the 800$ fee and moved on (12).

    Haven’t had anything since **knocks on wood**… Am I screwed? Applying for 2014 cycle.

    Note: College student from 08-12

    • Matt Shinners says:

      None of these would have me inherently worried. Even all together I wouldn’t be too concerned. The only one that would even come close to raising a red flag is the failure to appear/pay, so you might want to write an explanatory essay about that one, just making it clear that you messed up but rectified the situation.

      • Cats says:

        Hey there, relevant question, so I got my provisional’s license suspended for 30 days as a teenager for getting three tickets in one year. One violation of provisional’s license (past curfew) and one obstructing traffic (brilliantly trying to avoid a police officer in the vicinity because I knew I was past curfew, same incident). Other than that snafu, I have one other speeding ticket. I pled guilty to all of the above, except for the speeding ticket and was granted a PBJ for that, which I passed with flying colors. I currently don’t have any points on my license/haven’t gotten a ticket since, and am looking at hopefully applying to have the aforementioned expunged. I also voluntarily began volunteering with MAAD shortly after getting my license suspended, doing youth outreach and working with police. Do you think I could still manage to get into law school, and pass a character and fitness? I’ve heard horror stories of people graduating from law school, and then never being able to practice because they failed the C&F.
        Thanks!!

  3. James says:

    I’ve had a few incidents, but they all happened a long time ago.
    assault in 2001, shoplifting in 2001, DUI in 2003 and another DUI in 2008.
    The first three incidents happened when I was in high school and it’s been 6 years since my last incident. Should I be worried?
    Also, my wife filed a protective order against me that was dismissed by the court. I was never charged with anything or arrested. Do I need to disclose that?

  4. Dani says:

    What about previous colleges? I did take two college classes while in high school and failed one and dropped the other- I didn’t include the transcripts in my law school application because it didn’t go towards my college degree.

    Also, what about having applied at three different community colleges while in college (supplemental courses) but again, dropped the courses before the classes started. Will this come back and haunt me when I’m sitting for the bar? I was trying to have them go towards my minor (art history) and cram in the requirements last minute but decided to drop the minor all together.

    I should mention that at my actual degree granting college, I only dropped one class in the entire four years.

  5. Molly says:

    Three days before my 18th birthday, I was caught being out at night after curfew. There was no drinking or anything like it involved. The police made me wait for my parents to come get me, same with my friends.
    The told me they were giving me a warning, but I never received any type of documentation so was led to believe it was verbal. I was also under the impression that since I was turning 18 in three days, that warning would be taken from my record anyway. Is this something that needs to be disclosed? And how do I find out if it was actually a written warning? Thanks

  6. Lola Pell says:

    Hi,
    so my first freshman semester at my college, I was suspended for increasing my hours at my job, and then 2 times forging supervisor signature on the timesheet. I transferred out from school and never returned. It has been 4 years since, and now i am applying to law school, and wanted to know if I should disclose and is it even worth applying to law school? Please reply.

    • Greg Nix says:

      Hi Lola,
      Does your suspension show up on your transcript? You’ll almost certainly want to disclose, as schools will likely be curious as to why you transferred even if it doesn’t. That said, this sounds like a sticky situation and I’d encourage you to e-mail our friends at Law School Expert or Anna Ivey Consulting for a more detailed answer.

  7. Nick says:

    Hi thank you for your post, I have a DWI (misdemeanor) 2010; DWAI (Violation) 2014 which I know need to be disclosed but will it ruin my chances applying to law school?

    I also have summonses that I was never arrested for but cited and all dismissed: Unlawful possession of marijuana (dismissed); Public Urination (dismissed); Trespassing (dismissed) do these need to be disclosed? will I be rejected from law school because I was accused of something even though I was not at guilt? please reply thank you so much in advanced.

    • Greg Nix says:

      Hi Nick,
      It’s probably going to depend on the law school and the exact language on their application. This post might be helpful as you try to figure that out. In general, it’s worse to not disclose something that you should have than to give extra information, even if it costs you an admission or two.

      I’d also advise you to check out Matt’s advice on addendums above, as that could help with your applications.

  8. Xander says:

    I can only assume background checks are limited to the United States, true? Can you just run a background check on yourself using whatever methods are used by the admissions people as well as the bar? How? If you lived abroad would they do a check in that country too? Thanks.

    • Greg Nix says:

      You should definitely not assume that.

      The language on applications is usually pretty clear: it will say to disclose any “criminal convictions” or maybe any incident in which you were “arrested, charged, cited, or summonsed.” You should follow that to the letter, regardless of what country an incident happened in, as you will be in much, much worse shape if you don’t disclose and eventually face disciplinary action from your school or, worse, are not allowed to sit for the bar exam after you graduate.

  9. M says:

    I was charged for retail fraud in the third degree at age 17. I have a sealed record due to a diversion program in the state of Michigan (HYTA). Should I even bother applying? I have good grades and excellent community service.

    • Greg Nix says:

      Yes, you should still apply. A great LSAT score, strong resume of service, and well-written personal statement/explanatory essay can help you display to law schools why that behavior is in the past and what motivations it’s given you to pursue the legal profession.

      Be as honest and forthcoming as possible, and make sure the rest of your application kicks ass. If a convicted murderer can get into law school, you can probably do the same.

  10. J says:

    Hey I was wondering if anyone could give me an honest opinion. I took the december LSAT in 2016 and got a 159. Not too great, but also not bad. It was good enough to get into the law schools that I wanted to. I have wanted to attend either Brooklyn Law School or Villanova since I began this process a year and a half ago. I however do not have a squeaky clean record. My freshman year of college I was given a disorderly conduct for underage drinking. It was sealed and expunged based on me attending a youthful offenders program. After my 21st birthday, I was drinking in Scranton, PA and got a public intoxication. This second violation was June 30th 2015. I was all set to apply and figured everything would be fine because I honestly changed my life after the second offense. This is when I decided to pursue law school and I had yet to get into trouble at all since. Then on December 31th (NYE) I was driving with a friend to Pittsburgh PA to see another friend. He was speeding and got pulled over. They said they smelled marijuana and searched the car finding a miniscule amount of marijuana and a pipe. They both were found on my side of the car so the cop said so I was given the charges. I talked to my best friends dad who is a criminal lawyer and he said that he hopes to be able to work both misdemeanors down into a single disorderly conduct. This would be helpful, however, I just want a completely objective point of view from someone who doesn’t know me and will give me what they think will happen straightly. I read online that the schools don’t necessarily care about these “minor” issues but being that this third offense happened three days before receiving my results and I obviously don’t have adequate time to show “rehabilitation” I just was looking to this forum for advice.

    • Hi J,

      I’m not sure how much advice we can give you here, since this is a serious legal issue and we’re not lawyers. As far as law school admissions, if you’ve agreed to disclose arrests, etc. in your application or when you enroll, you probably should do so. Almost every state conducts a moral character survey as part of its procedure for admitting new lawyers to the bar. If you concealed something now that is discoverable in their review, then it’s quite possible you’ll be denied admission. That means three years of law school and possibly significant debt without the ability to practice law. As part of your representation, you should ask your friend’s father about how to proceed.

      • J says:

        I understand the bar process. I was just wondering if you think schools would still accept me. I have decided I am going to sign up for some rehabilitation classes to show that I am sincere. Have you heard of anyone ever getting into law school with a pending charge? The last question to anyone who might care!

        • I’m afraid I can’t answer that question. I’m guessing this wouldn’t amount to automatic rejection at most schools, meaning they’ll come to their own decision based on the facts. Each school has its own quirks, as well as their own estimation of their needs when it comes to admitting students with red flags. I’ve not heard of anyone getting into law school with a pending charge, but it’s probably happened before, if rarely.

  11. Mike Thomas says:

    I was summoned for underage drinking twice in college, both just school violations not by the police (hence all I did was violate student conduct code), should I disclose? Will they pull my records?

    • Hi Mike,

      There’s no blanket advice I can give on what should or should not be disclosed. I don’t know if any particular school will “pull your record,” and if they sought extra information from your undergraduate institution, they’d likely need your permission. Each school to which you apply should inform you somewhere in the application process of what must be disclosed. If a particular school wants violations of student code of conduct disclosed, then you should do it, because it will come back to bite you if you don’t. Otherwise, it’s up to you whether you think the risk of nondisclosure outweighs whatever damage you think there will be to your prospects of admission. Something you should consider is that disclosure gives you an opportunity to write an addendum explaining it and arguing that it’s something that’s part of your past. Nondisclosure forecloses that opportunity. You also ought to know that almost every state bar association conducts a moral character survey before admitting new lawyers to the bar. If they find this without disclosure, they might not like it, although it seems unlikely to me (don’t hold me to this) that they’d keep you from being licensed for a routine violation of the student code of conduct as an undergrad.

  12. Anna says:

    I have a quick question about accidentally failing to disclose on your law school applications. While I was applying, I completely forgot that I had, in fact, received a speeding ticket. Only one of the schools I applied to requires the disclosure of speeding tickets, but how do I go back and correct the error on the application that I have already submitted? And how do you think that will ultimately affect my application overall?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Anna,

      I’d call the law schools to which you’ve applied and ask them how they want it dealt with. I can’t imagine that forgetting to disclose a speeding ticket will affect your application if you correct the record of your own accord.

  13. Bob Driver says:

    What about someone who had a restraining order issued via family court? The only one on my record will expire before I start law school, but there is a fair chance another will be filed over the coming weeks (as part of a separate situation, with a separate individual). Neither of these would be associated with a criminal activity, so they wouldn’t come up in a criminal background check.

    Should I disclose?

    • Hi Bob,

      You only need to disclose what is called for in your application. That said, you should disclose anything that they can find through a reasonably diligent Google search, because it’s quite likely they’ll do one. It’s always a risk to fail to disclose because the downside of them finding out is usually worse than the upside of it not showing up in your application .

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