Law school applications: Criminal records

All law school applications ask about your criminal record. The primary purpose of these questions is to fulfill the schools’ mandate to ensure that applicants for the Bar are of “good moral character”. In most states, your application materials will eventually be forwarded to the bar admission officials when you seek to become licensed. At the very least, officials at your law school will be asked to certify your good moral character, or to report on any doubts they may have about it, when you apply for admission to the bar.

Accordingly, you need to answer the law school application questions honestly and forthrightly. As a general rule, you should err on the side of being over-inclusive in your responses. The questions on your eventual bar application will be far more intrusive, and any discrepancy between your answers then and your answers now will be a cause for serious concern.

The phrasing of the criminal record questions (within the “character and fitness” section of the application) can vary considerably. For example, Suffolk Law asks the following:

Excluding offenses committed as a juvenile, have you ever been arrested, charged, or been the subject of any investigation for a felony or misdemeanor or other criminal charge other than a minor traffic charge?

Western New England University Law School’s questions cast a different net:

Have you ever been convicted of a felony? (Without the conviction later being vacated or sealed.)

Other than a first conviction for drunkenness, simple assault, speeding, minor traffic violations, affray, or disturbance of the peace, have you been convicted of a misdemeanor within the five years preceding the date of this application, or been convicted of a misdemeanor, at any time, where a sentence of imprisonment was imposed? (Without the conviction later being vacated or sealed.)

Some schools ask about arrests, others about “charges” and still others only convictions. The applications also range widely in their opinions of whether traffic violations “count”, and if so, which kinds, and about whether you must report incidents that have been sealed or expunged. Many schools ask further that you provide an official statement of the charges and/or disposition of the case, obtainable from your lawyer, the court, or the relevant law enforcement agency.

If you have had any kind of encounter with the criminal justice system which may have resulted in criminal charges, you should gather any documents from that (or those) incident(s). You should also request your criminal record report from the state(s) in which the incident(s) occurred. (In Massachusetts, this is called your Criminal Offender Record Information, or CORI, and is available from the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services. Complete instructions and procedures are available here.) Just as with your disciplinary record, you will want to know exactly what the official record of your criminal history says before you respond to any questions about it. Many people do not understand or remember what the exact disposition of their criminal charges was. In addition, mistakes appear on CORIs more often than anyone would like.

Only after reviewing and understanding (and, if need be, correcting) the official record should you respond to the questions on your applications. Depending on the details of your record, and the specific demands of each application, you may answer the questions differently on each.

You will need to explain your “yes” answers. How you should do so varies depending on the nature of the crime.

If the incident involves a felony, a serious misdemeanor, or any crime involving dishonesty (such as forgery or fraud), or if your record contains more than one or two charges/convictions
, you should come speak to the Pre-Law Advisor before crafting your explanation of your record. These types of incidents could seriously affect your ability to gain admission to law school and to become a lawyer. Do not consider leaving these off your applications or in any other way misrepresenting your criminal record. While a serious criminal record may prevent you from practicing law, lying about your criminal record will prevent you from ever becoming an attorney.

If the incident involves drug use,
you should pay attention to whether the application gives special instructions regarding the details the admission committee would want to hear about. Drug convictions no longer affect your federal student aid eligibility.

If the incident is minor
 – e.g., disturbing the peace, a single incident of driving while intoxicated, underage drinking, violation of the open container law – you should feel fairly confident that your arrest, conviction, or guilty plea is not going to keep you out of most law schools.

However, the law schools will want to know the details of the surrounding circumstances. Make your description concise, and limited to the facts of the incident and its disposition. For example, “After the Super Bowl on [date], I was involved in a large outdoor celebration that got out of hand. Along with dozens of my peers, I was arrested by the university police and charged with disorderly conduct. I subsequently pled guilty in Hampshire (MA) District Court and paid a fine of $200.”

Do not editorialize about how you think the police overreacted or were “out to get you”, or how your lawyer was incompetent, or how unfair the judge was. This is not the time to argue that you were wrongfully arrested or that you pled guilty without understanding the consequences. No matter what you might think of the incident, to the rest of the world it exists now as a simple fact on your criminal record. Attempts to explain it away will diminish your credibility in the eyes of the admission committees. On the other hand, taking responsibility for what happened will indicate that you have matured and moved past the incident.

If you’re a UMass Amherst student or alum and have any concerns about your criminal or disciplinary records and how to report on them to law schools, please contact the Pre-Law Advisor.

More about Character & Fitness questions generally

About university conduct/disciplinary records

About Dean’s Certification letters

See an overview of the entire application process