Bad Idea Jeans: Setting Your Pants on Fire
Since I introduced 203's B.I.J. feature last spring, many of you have waited anxiously for the next post, perhaps for no other reason than to discover a new 80's reference you've never heard of as reaffirmation that you're still under 30, so things really can't be all that bad. I hadn't been inspired for a while, as things have been going well: baby's sleeping through the night, the Yankees won the World Series, and I had a chance to get out and see New Moon in the movie theater (Werewolves. v. Vampires -- feel free to discuss in the comments). But since it has started getting dark here at 4:30 p.m., my Seasonal Affective Disorder has slowly set in, and I'm ready to impart a new lesson.
I guess it goes without saying that setting your pants on fire is Bad Idea Jeans, not the least because you would no longer have said jeans. But what I'm referring to here is lying on your application.
Now, there're no shortage of opportunities for you to put untruths, partial-truths, omissions, or exaggerations on your application. For the most part, we probably won't know. (I will refer you here, though, to the part of the application you sign which says, "I understand Yale Law School may verify information included in my application." This means we can, and sometimes do, randomly snoop around to see whether you're actually the person you say you are -- more on that in a future Bad Idea Jeans: Greatest Hits.) But there is one part of the application in which you are unlikely to get away with lying, and that is the Character and Fitness questions, which vary from law school to law school but appear on our application as follows:
Question 11. Have you ever been convicted of, or pleaded guilty or no contest to, a felony or misdemeanor, or are there any criminal charges pending against you at the present time?
Question 12. At any college or university, have you ever been suspended, expelled, or required to withdraw, or been the subject of any other disciplinary action or proceedings for misconduct or deficient scholarship, or are there any charges pending against you?
Simple enough, right? Sadly, we see time and again how these questions cause enormous anxiety, and sometimes ongoing problems, for law school applicants and students.
See, we're not going to be the last people to ask you these kinds of questions. You could probably breeze into law school using a Clintonesque "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" self-rationalization to avoid disclosing your past. You could even whistle through another three years, line up a cushy clerkship and job, and start picking out the furniture for your 300-square foot Manhattan studio from Pottery Barn. But at some point, you will find yourself applying to the bar of some state, only to stop dead in your tracks when you see something like the following (taken from the New York State bar application):
Have you ever, either as an adult or juvenile, been cited, arrested, taken into custody, charged with, indicted, convicted or or tried for, or pleaded guilty to, the commission of any felony or misdemeanor or the violation of any law, except minor parking violations, or been the subject of juvenile delinquency or youthful offender proceedings? If you answer yes, state the charge or charges, the disposition thereof and the underlying facts. Although a conviction may have been expunged from the records by an order of the court, it nevertheless should be disclosed in the answer to this question. Please note that you should have available and be prepared to submit or exhibit copies of police and court records regarding any matter you disclose in reply to this question.
What happens is that when you answer this question, the Character and Fitness Committee from your state comes back to us (or whichever law school you graduated from), and asks the Registar or Dean of Students whether your answers match what you disclosed on your applications. Now, if you are observant, you'll notice that our questions don't exactly match the bar question. Guess what? IT DOESN'T MATTER. The bar committees will freak out when they see that your law school application disclosures don't match your bar application disclosures, and they're going to want to know more. They're going to give the new information to your law school, and ask your school (more specifically, the Dean of Admissions) to warrant that you would have still been admitted had s/he known the new information. They're going to ask you why you didn't disclose the information earlier. They're going to go through the rest of your application with a fine-toothed comb. In short, you're going to have to go through a lot of red tape, have a P.O.'d alma mater, and, if what you didn't originally disclose was actually pretty bad, find yourself with a rescinded law degree and/or unable to sit for the bar.
Lest you think I'm being too preachy, I'll confess that I'm no saint, either. When I applied to the FBI, I had to undergo a polygraph examination. I remember getting to the FBI office, and seeing a tall, burly, old guy with a crew cut fiddling around with a bunch of wires and hookups on what looked like a medieval torture machine. I sat down, and he ignored me. He suddenly turned around and pulled up his chair directly across from me, about ten inches from my face.
"Character," he said, locking eyes, "is what you do when you think no one is looking."
Crap. I had just jaywalked across Church Street and blown off the homeless lady selling flowers. Had they been trailing me?
During the four-hour interrogation that followed, I proceeded to scour my mental rolodex and barf out every moral infraction I could think of. Like the time I "borrowed" some printer paper from my job to use at home. Or the time I tried to use a fake Nebraska ID to get into a Georgetown bar (I was rejected). Or the time I kinda sorta traveled to Cuba, you know...illegally. I cried; the polygrapher thanked me and told me I spoke very good English.
The point is that we all have skeletons in our closet, and when it comes to law school and practicing law, a bone or two will come flying out sooner or later. It's in your interest to have it be sooner. To help you out, here are a few things to consider:
1. If you need to consult an attorney about whether or not to disclose something, then you probably need to disclose it (despite what your attorney tells you).
2. If what you've done is enough to keep you out of law school, it's almost certainly going to keep you from practicing law. You might as well know now, because while getting rejected from law school is bad, graduating from law school with $150K of debt and no way to pay it back is even worse.
3. Business schools don't ask you these kinds of questions.
One last thing. I've read close to around 10,000 files at this point, and to be honest, I've seen very few transgressions that would ipso facto disqualify someone from admission to law school. But here's the deal: a lack of candor, even about an otherwise excusable incident, raises serious questions about your fitness to practice law. Remember that Martha Stewart didn't get convicted for an actual securities violation (there wasn't one), she was convicted for LYING about it. So set yourself free: tell the truth. (And by the way, please don't try to end run the question by omitting an answer on your application and then sending an email to the general admissions address that you "forgot" to mention your DUI, or whatever -- that just makes you look sketchier.)
OK, I'll end with a gratuitous 80's reference (extra credit for readers over 30: Haim v. Feldman -- please discuss):