Minimizing the Risks
Did you ever look at an Applicant Profile in the ABA-LSAC Official Guide and see a cell reporting 28 applicants and 27 accepted, and wonder why that one person didn't make it? The odds are that the admissions officer was minimizing her risks. Once there is a weakness or problem in your file, the burden is on you to prove that the problem will not recur. Otherwise the risk of your embarrassing the school or dropping out may prevent you from being admitted.
Risk comes in many forms:
These problems can lead the admissions officer to doubt the applicant's ability to keep up with the work.
Dealing With a Criminal Record
Most law schools will ask about criminal charges, but the actual wording of the question will vary. Some will ask only about convictions, while others will ask about arrests. Some law schools will require you to report even offenses committed while you were a juvenile, and even if the record has been expunged.
Knowing the exact nature of the charges which were brought is essential to answering these questions correctly. If you were represented by a lawyer at the time you were accused of the crime, that lawyer can usually answer these questions. If you didn't have a lawyer then you should probably see one now.
Arrests should be explained honestly and completely, both in terms of the court proceedings and the circumstances which led you to have legal problems. Any dishonesty may leave you liable to further legal repercussions (including criminal charges or denial of the right to practice law). As with bad grades, law schools will look to see whether the underlying problem has been resolved. What have you learned that "reformed" you? Has marriage and the responsibility of a family overcome a tendency to drink and find yourself in the middle of brawls? If the offense was a response to an abusive family member, have you ended that relationship? This information will help the admissions committee feel confident that you will not cause further problems, to the detriment and perhaps scandal of the law school.
Even more important, overcoming a background in which crime and violence were commonplace solutions to life's problems can show great strength of character. A juvenile delinquent from a dysfunctional family or a ghetto who found athletics or the church choir has learned that life offers greater options than the ones we're raised with. A boy who stops stealing from trains after he falls on the track and loses both his arms has learned a lot more than that crime doesn't pay. These people will not only bring strength and determination to law school, they also will add a diversity that the mainstream person can rarely contribute. Why try to hide what may be your greatest strength?
And a final warning about omitting any arrests, even juvenile, even if expunged or sealed, from your file. At the Los Angeles Law Forum I asked three different admissions officers about this. All of them said the same thing: report it! Even if they don't care, the Board of Law Examiners may. And an omission can hurt you much more than the arrest ever did.
As evidence, I offer this letter that showed up in my mailbox:
After completing the form for my former client, I sent it on to another person. Who knows where it will end up?
Some guy sent me the following email:
"The California Bar Exam application specifically states that an applicant with a sealed or expunged juvenile record is not responsible for disclosing that information, provided that the applicant's record was sealed within California's jurisdiction. I just thought you would like to know that there may be some cases when a law school applicant may not need to inform a law school regarding an expunged or sealed record."
I still say you have to disclose it if the law school asks. What a law school requires has nothing at all to do with what the Bar Examiners require.
In October 2004, at one of the Law Forums, I was looking at new essay questions on New York Law School's application, and saw the following "arrest" question:
Have you ever, either as an adult or a juvenile, been cited, arrested, taken into custody, charged with, indicted, convicted or tried for, or pleaded guilty to, the commission of any felony or misdemeanor or the violation of any law, except for minor traffic violations, or been the subject of juvenile delinquency or youthful offender proceeding, or is any such action pending or expected to be brought against you?
Bill Perez, the Dean of Admissions, tells me that the language was lifted verbatim from the New York State Bar application. He also said:
Law schools seem to be getting upset with applicants who don't fully disclose misconduct. Two schools that I know of have "beefed up" their disclosure statements.
Have you ever in your entire life been charged with, or arrested for, the violation of any law including traffic laws, misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors, felonies, or the equivalent?
You must disclose this requested information even if the charges were dismissed or you were acquitted, the conviction was stayed or vacated, the record sealed or expunged, or you were told you need not disclose this information.
Have you ever either as an adult or juvenile been cited or arrested for, charged with or convicted of any violation of the law? ...
You must disclose each instance even if you were granted any type of pretrial diversion, even if filed charges were dismissed, even if charges resulted in a deferred adjudication, even if you were acquitted of such charges, or even if such charges resulted in a conviction that was reversed, set aside, vacated or expunged.
You'd think that with a 12% decline in applicants over most regions, law schools would be more lenient, in an effort to get those high LSAT scores they so covet. Yet it seems to me that the "Have you ever...?" questions are much more stringent than they have been in previous years.
One admissions officer I spoke to attributes this to the Bar Examiners (those people who decide whether you can have a license). As they ask more thorough and inclusive questions, the law schools are copying their language, so that students don't spend three or four years of time and tuition, only to be told they're not of fit moral character after graduation.
Bad Grades and Leaves of Absence
Often applicants want to hide problems which they believe show a weakness. One client of mine was urged by his friends to hide an alcoholic past. I gently pointed out that he couldn't; he had to explain a 1.25 gpa he had earned at his first college. He asked, "But won't they think I still have a drinking problem?" I reminded him that his current 3.5 gpa was proof that he didn't.
The worst possible signal in your file is an unexplained problem semester, or one which you are obviously glossing over. The admissions officer may be wondering, "What was wrong? Has the problem been resolved? Will it recur in law school? Are you hiding something you have a legal obligation to reveal?" If a leave of absence reflects a larger physical or emotional problem, it should be explained in a way that convinces the admissions committee that the problem is not likely to recur. You should explain that the sick relative no longer requires your presence at home every weekend. If you had a drug or alcohol problem, you should tell how long you have been sober and how you're going to stay that way in law school. .
Current success is the best proof that a problem is in the past. A recent problem is much more troublesome, and the applicant has a strong obligation to prove that the problem is solved permanently. If the admissions officer is not convinced, she may advise the applicant to wait a year or two and apply again.
Did someone "unrecommend" you? Was it you?
Never badger a reluctant recommender into writing; they may write a letter saying, "I don't really know this student, but she insisted that I write." Or even worse, "He is obnoxious, pushy and won't take 'no' for an answer." When you ask an instructor for a recommendation, listen carefully to the instructor's answer. Hesitation or ambivalence tells you the teacher can't give you a good recommendation. In that case, you're better off choosing someone else.
Students "unrecommend" themselves either through arrogance or through carelessness. No matter how good you think you are, don't write anything that sounds like "you obviously want me." No matter how high your grades, the admissions committee may decide they don't need anyone with your attitude. Even worse is the person with low grades who tries to convince the admissions officer that such things as grades and LSAT scores don't matter.
Essays that take wealth and opportunity for granted can also disrecommend the writer. One admissions committee member I know told me she rejected an applicant for writing, "Every person in our society should avail themselves of the opportunity to see Europe." This sentence showed her the author had no understanding of the position of the underprivileged, and she decided the seat could be more wisely given to someone else.
Carelessness can be as bad as arrogance. Incomplete forms, sloppy papers, confusing answers, can be enough to keep you out of law school. The admissions committee, which decides the fate of discretionary applicants, is usually made up of faculty members. If the application looks like certain exam papers that give them migraine headaches, they may decide they can pass up the opportunity for next year's migraine.