Many applicants find one of the scariest aspects of preparing law school applications to be disclosing situations that don’t reflect the applicant at his or her best. These situations are usually related to academic underperformance or probation and interactions with the criminal justice system.
If you have some skeletons in the closet, never fear. Law schools know that even those who are planning to be lawyers have episodes in their past that they are not proud of.
First of all, don’t expect schools to treat these incidents as major impediments to your admissions chances. There are two general exceptions to this statement: incidents that represents a major lapse in judgment, such as expulsion from a school or a criminal conviction as opposed to a citation or minor violation; and patterns of troubling behavior, such as multiple alcohol-related citations that have continued in the recent past.
[Find out why law school applications get rejected.]
The most important thing to remember as you begin to think about what to disclose is that you should always err on the side of caution. That is to say, if you are in doubt about whether your incident should be disclosed, then disclose it. As discussed above, you shouldn’t fear disclosing, since schools generally treat minor incidents as minor.
[Learn the steps to handling disclosure on law school applications.]
The reason you should always err on the side of disclosure is that it is much worse to appear deceptive or opaque than it is to disclose a minor incident. Furthermore, your law school application is one of the documents considered for the character and fitness portion of most state bar applications, and state bar associations will also not look favorably on a material nondisclosure.
Each school has different guidelines with respect to what to disclose, so make sure you carefully read the exact wording of the disclosure requests in your applications and interpret them broadly.
Once you have determined that you need to disclose an incident, you should plan on writing an addendum to explain the incident. As I mentioned above, these incidents usually fall into one of two categories: academic discipline and criminal penalties.
For both categories you should seek to do two things in your addendum. First, describe the facts of the situation truthfully and in their entirety, including any mitigating or explanatory facts. Second, you should show that you have learned from the incident and that since the incident you have been a responsible and conscientious student or citizen.
[See when else law school applicants should include an addendum.]
For issues of academic discipline such as suspension or probation, make sure to bring up any mitigating circumstances such as youth, emotional difficulties you were having at the time that contributed to the incident, or, if applicable, a miscommunication with school administration. You should then highlight the strengths of your academic record since the incident to show that you have grown as a student and as a person as a result.
For issues relating to criminal justice, you should, as above, bring up any mitigating circumstances and indicate that you have had no further criminal issues since the incident. The most common criminal issues that people disclose are traffic violations – most schools don’t require disclosure of minor traffic violations, however – and issues with underage drinking.
For traffic violations, show that you understand the purpose of obeying traffic laws and that since the incident you have followed traffic laws assiduously. For issues with underage drinking, make sure that you show them that you do not have an ongoing issue with alcohol.
The most important thing to remember, though, is that you should not be afraid to disclose these incidents. Unless the incidents are serious in nature or are part of a pattern of negative behavior, they will likely not affect your chances of admission. Failure to disclose an incident that a school or state bar association finds out about, however, can end up causing much more trouble than being honest at the outset.