So, you’ve made a mistake. It happens. Law schools all require that applicants address any criminal record, including any arrests or incidents resulting in probation.
Below are 5 tips for handling this delicate situation.
1. Mea Culpa. If you’ve made a mistake, admit it up front. You should show remorse and explain why you will not do the same thing again. It’s fantastic if you can show activities you’ve done to rehabilitate yourself – counseling, helping at-risk youth, community service (that’s not court-ordered). Anything you can explain to show how hard you’ve worked to redeem yourself is important to share. You can’t work too hard to redeem yourself.
2. Don’t re-litigate the issue. Even if you feel you were wrongfully accused, this is not the place to make excuses or explain why it’s not your fault. It doesn’t matter what happened – whether you took the fall for a friend or whether you think someone was being hard on you. For the purposes of this application, you did it and you have to face up to it.
3. The harder the crime, the harder the time. If you have committed a more serious crime – stealing, drugs, or violence (even a bar fight) – you need to work harder to rehabilitate yourself. You should have very specific examples of things you have done to reform yourself and show that regret your actions. If you have a very serious conviction – and stealing counts – you need to have a near perfect application otherwise. Also be aware that frequency and time matters. Multiple convictions or tickets may pose more of an issue than one fine as a college freshman.
4. Do. Not. Lie. In law, lying about your past violates the ethical standards of lawyers. So tell the truth. If you aren’t sure, include it anyways. When you apply for bar admission, the state bar will review your law school application for accuracy.
5. Be precise. I recommend that people with some type of conviction call or visit the relevant court and get records certifying the disposition of your case – e.g. certificates for the completing of rehab or community service, a notice that fines were paid, etc. Lawyers value precision, so when you write the addendum, give exact dates – for example, that you completed your community service on January 5, 2012.
Having some form of criminal record doesn’t necessarily exclude you from applying to law school, but you should be careful to disclose everything to prevent future accusations of deception.
Jessica Pishko graduated with a J.D. from Harvard Law School and received an M.F.A. from Columbia University. She spent two years guiding students through the medical school application process at Columbia’s PostBac Program and teaches writing at all levels.