A legal career requires all who enter the field to possess strength of character and to be fit to practice the law. Not physical fitness or endurance – though that may help you survive first year of law school! – but fitness under the definition 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 adcom?
Law schools ask these series of questions to determine if your character and integrity are suitable for a career in law. Given the weight that will be given to your answers, this section can cause confusion and distress for applicants. Paying careful attention to the specific wording of the questions is required. 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 from California schools. Also keep in mind that your law school application will also be included as a part of your bar application, and 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. As a member of a law school admissions committee, I counseled many applicants to read the questions carefully and answer the questions truthfully to the best of their recollection.
Mistakes happen, but…
When visiting undergraduate institutions for recruiting events, I would somewhat jokingly counsel prospective applicants never to make mistakes. But of course mistakes happen, and that’s to be expected. What’s important is that you learn from those mistakes and that you do not establish patterns of negative behavior that may ultimately call into question your character and fitness to practice law.
For example, don’t drive drunk. It just makes sense, and if thinking about your future legal career gets you into an Uber, everybody wins. If you are leaving a bar or a party, get an Uber, and (I can’t believe I have to type this) use the bathroom before you leave. I could never understand all the public urination character and fitness “violations” that I read over the years! Really. The world is not your toilet.
Also, if your undergraduate college has a strict “no candle” policy, again seems like I am being obvious here, but don’t light a candle in your room. I get it, ambience is everything, so if you light a candle and get caught and that disciplinary action is on your record, don’t freak out. Answer the character and fitness question appropriately, admit you were wrong and learned from the incident that following rules is important, and it is unlikely that will keep you out of law school.
Watch: A former UVA law school application reader talks about applying to law school with a criminal record
If you are concerned with behavior that is a bit more than a candle or even public urination, don’t hide or answer “no” to a question to which you should be answering “yes.” While the law school may 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.
In my career, applicants have not disclosed problematic incidents on the application only to have difficulty down the road. If you have questions about whether to disclose 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. When in doubt, I recommend that applicants disclose behavior with the feeling it is better to over-disclose than appear to be covering up.
Your 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 taken to make amends and seek rehabilitation. If the incident is drinking-related, speak to your understanding of the effects of alcohol and your care now, and in the future, to not repeat behavior. Hopefully the transgression happened a few years ago and you can speak to a clean record since that time. If you had a rough semester and were placed on academic probation due to difficulty outside of classes, 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 TMIs.
None of us wish to be judged by our worst days, much less by the worst days of our 19-year-old self. 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.
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