By Jennifer B. Bonniwell
Almost all of the questions I field about law school applications relate to personal statements, recommendations and resumes. However, it is critically important for applicants to treat the character and fitness questions of the law school application with an equal (or greater) amount of consideration.
These background questions, part of every law school application, are required because ultimately the law school is required to certify that each graduate is fit to practice law. That means the law school submits to the Bar Board of Examiners all disclosures you make on your law school application, along with any updates you submit during law school.
Like it or not, these questions are a part of your future professional licensure so use the tips below to make sure you are “fit” to be a lawyer.
1. Be Candid
It is always better to over-disclose in response to character and fitness questions. A law school may rescind an offer of admittance if it learns your responses are incomplete. Even after matriculation, failure to fully disclose can lead to a disciplinary board hearing, with consequences ranging from transcript notation to dismissal. (Disciplinary proceedings and the information that was withheld by the student are disclosed to the board of bar examiners). Finally, the answers provided on your law school application must match the responses you give on your bar application, or investigations will occur that could delay your admittance to the bar or even preclude you from legal practice altogether.
Just remember to be honest and forthcoming, as you would be as an attorney, and you will have a much easier time getting over your past.
2. Provide a Full Explanation
Typically, law schools ask for “yes or no” responses to the questions then an addendum with the details and explanation. This is your opportunity to present your side of the story for the Admission Committee. The best way to respond is to (1) state the facts, including dates and times, parties involved, court dates and the outcome, then (2) a short paragraph or two describing the situation to help put it into context for the Admission Committee. Additional context could include your age and time since the incident occurred, the seriousness of the conduct, any evidence of rehabilitation and ownership of the issue, and any positive social contributions since the conduct occurred. And remember, fully explaining the circumstances helps for the Admissions Committee to learn not only more about the incident, but more about you. Also, remember to read the questions carefully, as I often see applicants fail to disclose incidents properly because of a lack of careful reading. Don’t let a careless mistake affect your long-term career goals.
3. Remember to Update
The character and fitness questions are an ongoing obligation for law applicants as well as law students. If a criminal incident takes place two weeks prior to your enrollment into a law program, then you must disclose this to the law admissions office. Similarly, if an arrest occurs during your third year of law school, then you must immediately inform the Dean of Students.
4. Final Thoughts
Character and fitness questions tend to leave law applicants scared, however if you realize you failed to make a full disclosure, don’t panic. Simply get in touch with your law admissions office and explain the situation in writing. Keep in mind that your full cooperation and honesty are important, no matter what stage your disclosure comes. The more open and forthcoming you are, the better it will serve you. While law schools and the board of bar examiners are the gatekeepers into the legal profession, they are not unreasonable and will gladly allow you to make your case.
Jennifer B. Bonniwell, Esq., is the Interim Dean of Admission for Suffolk Law School.