Anyone who enters a legal career is required to possess strength of character and to be fit to practice the law. We’re not talking physical fitness or endurance – though that might help you survive the first year of law school! – but fitness within the context of suitability. This is why law school applications include a section of questions titled “Character and Fitness.”
Why are these traits so important to law school adcoms?
Law schools ask character and fitness questions to determine whether an applicant’s personality and integrity are suitable for a career in law. Considering the weight that will be given to these answers, this section can cause confusion and distress for applicants. You must pay careful attention to the specific wording of the questions. Once you understand the questions as they are written (often in legalese by the law school’s general counsel), you can successfully address them, offering compelling answers, even if you have a few transgressions on your record.
Character and fitness questions are different for each school and are primarily driven by the bar requirements of the state in which the law school is located. Thus, Massachusetts schools will have different requirements than California schools and therefore different questions. Keep in mind that your law school application will be included as part of your bar application, so your answers will be reviewed carefully in both instances. This is not to say that you must go to a school in the state where you ultimately wish to practice; it is just standard for law schools to use their state as a guideline. Be sure to read the questions carefully and answer them truthfully to the best of your recollection.
Ideally, applicants would never make mistakes, but of course, mistakes happen. What’s important is that you learn from any mistakes you might have made and do not establish patterns of negative behavior that could ultimately call into question your character and fitness to practice law.
For instance, if your college dorm has a strict “no candle” policy, don’t light a candle in your room. But if you do light a candle and get caught and that disciplinary action goes on your record, don’t freak out. Answer the character and fitness question appropriately, admit you were wrong, and share what you learned from the incident (i.e., that following rules is important), and the episode is unlikely to keep you out of law school.
If you are concerned with a behavioral incident from your past that is a bit more serious than lighting a candle in your dorm room, don’t try to hide this information or answer “no” to a question to which you should be answering “yes.” While the law school might not Google your name for records, the bar examiners will do a much more thorough search. It would be a shame to invest time and money into a legal education only to have bar examiners question your character and fitness for the profession.
Applicants who don’t disclose problematic incidents on their application might have difficulty down the road. If you have questions about whether to disclose something or not, call the admissions office directly for their opinion. If questions remain or you feel your case needs a closer look, seek legal advice. I recommend that when in doubt, applicants disclose any behavioral issues, as it is better to over disclose than to appear to be covering up.
Take a straightforward approach to character and fitness mishaps
If you are submitting a character and fitness addendum, make no excuses, admit the transgression, and detail the steps you have taken to make amends and seek rehabilitation.
For instance, if the incident is drinking related, speak to your understanding of the effects of alcohol and your care to not repeat the behavior both now and in the future. Ideally, any transgression will have happened a few years ago, and you can speak to a clean record since that time. Or if you had a rough semester because of difficulty outside of classes and were placed on academic probation, speak to the difficulty, the counseling/resources that you employed, and your subsequent academic achievements to demonstrate that the semester was an anomaly.
Be clear and concise, and ditch the long, drawn-out stories and excuses. Be to the point without offering too much information.
Bottom line: be truthful
The mistakes of your past need not haunt your law school application. Answer the character and fitness questions truthfully, and when in doubt, ask for clarification and advice.
Do you need help putting your best foot forward in your law school application? Explore our Law School Admissions Consulting and Advising Services, and work one-on-one with an experienced advisor who will help you get accepted.
Sadie Polen has more than ten years of experience in higher education. She reviewed statements of purpose, personal statements, and resumes for political and public service opportunities and made candidate selections for elite programs at Harvard University. She also has experience advising individuals on their career and post-graduation plans. Sadie holds a BS from UC Davis, an EdM from Harvard, and a DEI certificate from Cornell. Want Sadie to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch.