Question: I am a PhD graduate in chemistry, and I also have an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. I am very interested in pursuing a JD in intellectual property and patent law. I do not have any academic dishonesty incidents at my undergraduate school, but in my graduate program, there was a misunderstanding between me and a professor regarding a term paper. He took it to the academic dishonesty council at my school. I contested his accusation, but the council made a decision to give me an F in the course and due to that fact, my GPA fell below 3.0, and I was placed on academic probation. I took the same course again and got an A. I got out of academic probation and my final GPA is 3.5. There is no record of academic dishonesty on my transcript. I am an honest person, and I want to be honest about this incident in the law school application process. My question is: How badly will this incident affect my chances of getting admission to law school? Will I ever get admitted or should I stop dreaming about attending law school someday? If I have any chance, how will I go about making my case? Please help.
Anna's Answer: Every law school applicant with a disciplinary past faces this conundrum, and there are quite a few applicants in that category. For what it's worth, law school admissions officers have dealt with far worse than term paper misunderstandings. Even drug dealers and murderers have been accepted to and graduated from law school.
We're all human, and no one wants to revisit past mistakes, let alone point them out to people one is trying to impress. Your instinct to disclose the truth is a good one. For those of you out there who aren't so sure, let me add that while the temptation to lie, dissemble or fudge is an understandable one, you'll get no sympathy if you give into that temptation, and you could get into serious trouble.
Here's why. We live in a post-Watergate world, where the cover-up is usually punished much more harshly than the underlying offense. Every law school application I've ever seen asks, in one form or another, whether you've had disciplinary problems, and every application makes you sign your name to a statement swearing that you're telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Some people do lie on their applications, and obviously not everyone gets caught. But plenty of people do get caught; I caught a few myself back in my days as an admissions officer, and every admissions officer has war stories of that nature. If you get busted lying on an application, no law school in the country will touch you with a 10-foot pole.
And if an admissions officer doesn't bust you, the state bar association very well might. If you think that law school applications are nosy and intrusive, just wait until you apply to become a member of your state bar. I've joined the bar in two states, and it's enough to drive anyone insane; the bar exam will seem easy compared to the application. They even have a special application in which they evaluate your "moral character and fitness." You may laugh; we all know the reputation that lawyers have. But bar associations do take that obligation very seriously. Among other things, you'll have to reconstruct the address for every place you've ever lived since you were but a twinkle in your mother's eye, and some states even make you disclose your parking tickets. Bar associations have whole staffs dedicated to sniffing out fishy applications. So even if you pull one over on admissions officers, you really, really don't want to mess with the state bar. Imagine how much worse it would be to be told, after you've finished three years of law school and spent six figures on the privilege, that - sorry! - you can't practice law.
~Whew. Now that that's out of the way, let's tackle your question about the best way to disclose your history. Different schools ask for the information in different ways, and I think you can, in good faith, draw the line in different places depending on what specific information they ask for. Many schools ask the question very broadly, for example whether you've ever been accused of a disciplinary offense, or if you were ever the subject of a disciplinary hearing or proceeding. For those, I think it's pretty obvious that you have to check the "yes" box and write the admissions committee an explanation. Other schools ask only about convictions. From your e-mail, it sounds as if you were in fact found guilty (the F grade was your punishment, right?), so I think you'd have to answer "yes' to that one, too.
What you should not factor into your disclosure decision is whether the accusation or the punishment appears on your transcript. Applicants get in trouble with this all the time. You might think it's not on your record, but maybe there's a reference to it in the Dean's Certification your school submits to law schools or LSAC, or maybe one of your recommenders writes something like, "He really snapped back and made amends after that unfortunate incident before the disciplinary board." If it happened, disclose it, no matter what you think does or does not appear on your record.
Assuming you do have to check the "yes" box, what's the next step? Whether your disciplinary problems sink your admissions chances really depends much less on that checked box and much more on your explanation. You will need to write an addendum, clearly labeled as your response to Question 17 (or whatever), where you tell them with utmost honesty and candor what happened. You have to be genuinely contrite about whatever your role was in this (I would need to know a lot more about the term paper "misunderstanding" that got you into trouble; I don't really know what your role was at this point) and put the admissions officers at ease. You don't want them to worry that you failed to learn your lesson and that you'll be trouble in law school, too. Law schools are pretty understanding when it comes to one-time stupid mistakes, especially when the offense involved a misunderstanding. Whether a disciplinary problem holds back an applicant depends entirely on the circumstances. If you made a stupid mistake that you won't repeat, you shouldn't let that stop you from applying.
Anna Ivey is a private admissions counselor who works with people applying to the top business schools and law schools, as well as the author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions: Straight Advice on Essays, Resumes, Interviews and More. Formerly the Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, she has also practiced corporate and entertainment law in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from Columbia and her J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, where she served as an editor of The University of Chicago Law Review. To learn more about her admissions counseling, visit annaivey.com.
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