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Disciplinary & Criminal Records

When you apply to law school, you will discover that most applications ask you about your undergraduate disciplinary record and your criminal record. The questions are sometimes very open-ended: those about your disciplinary record might ask for information about any time you have been disciplined either for academic or non-academic reasons. Those questions about your criminal record may specifically ask you to describe any incident, even if you were not convicted, were a juvenile, or the record was expunged or sealed.

In addition, some schools, including some of the most popular schools for Ramapo applicants, require an independent report on your college disciplinary record, called a “Dean’s Letter” or “Dean’s Certification,” which will be compared against your answers.

The first thing you need to know in answering these questions is that minor violations or convictions will not keep you out of law school. On the other hand, misrepresenting your disciplinary record or arrest record will be taken very seriously both by law schools and by the bar admission authority of the state in which you eventually seek to get licensed. Therefore, the guiding principle you should keep in mind as you respond to these questions is that you be completely forthcoming and honest. Any misrepresentation will hurt you far more than the underlying offense.

University Discipline

Law school applications ask about both academic and non-academic sanctions. These questions are generally open-ended enough to include everything from a suspension for failure to maintain a minimum grade point average to an R.A.’s warning for violation of the bathroom policy. All end up on your disciplinary record and/or your transcript.

You should answer these questions truthfully and completely. If you have any doubts about what is on your disciplinary record, request a copy from Ramapo College so that you can review it before completing your law school applications. Those schools that ask for a Dean’s Certification will be receiving this information independently, and will notice any discrepancy between your answers and those reported on the Dean’s Certification.

All disciplinary violations require some kind of explanation on your applications. The explanation should be brief and to the point, and should also take into consideration the seriousness of the offense. You do not need to go into great detail about a noise policy violation for which you received a warning. The law school admission committees do not really care about these sorts of minor violations. Accordingly, “I was written up by my RA for playing my stereo too loud,” is sufficient. Your record will reflect that there were no repeat offenses (if that is the case), so you do not need to point that out. Generally, the types of offenses that are considered minor and of negligible importance to law school admissions committees include the following:

  • Noise policy
  • Bathroom policy
  • Unauthorized guest in room
  • Minor housing violations (e.g., moving furniture)

Alcohol-related disciplinary violations may be more concerning, but isolated incidents are unlikely to affect your admission. Underage drinking, violation of the open container rules, or having alcohol in your on-campus room are not taken too seriously to the extent that those violations were single incidents and did not result in criminal charges of any kind. A certain amount of youthful indulgence is tolerated.

Academic discipline is normally reflected on your transcript, and so the law schools will see it from an independent source. Answering the question on the application is your opportunity to give some context to the discipline. For example, if you dropped all of your classes more than halfway through the semester one year because of some family problems, and were placed on academic probation as a result, this is your chance to tell the admission committee about those extenuating circumstances. If you were struggling for a while for less compelling reasons, feel free to own up to that. Forthrightly acknowledging your mistakes will demonstrate that you have the maturity to move beyond them.

The most serious academic violation is of the academic honesty policy. A finding that you have cheated or plagiarized raises serious questions about your ability to conduct yourself in an ethical manner as an attorney. If you have such a violation on your disciplinary record, you should come speak to the Pre-Law Advisor to discuss your options.

If you have any questions about your disciplinary record, or want to dispute any information found on it, you should contact the Office of Student Conduct, in C216, (201) 684-7869.

University discipline links

  • Code of Student Conduct
  • Academic Honesty policy
  • Alcohol policies

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Criminal record

All law school applications ask about your criminal record. One purpose of these questions is to fulfill the schools’ mandate to ensure that applicants for the Bar are of “good moral character.” Depending on the state in which you eventually apply for law school admission, your application materials may be forwarded to the bar admission officials of the state. 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 bar application will be far more demanding of information, and any conflict between your answers then and your answers now will be a cause for serious concern.

The phrasing of the criminal record questions can vary considerably. For example, Suffolk Law asks two questions:

  • Have you ever been convicted of 1) a misdemeanor for which the sentence was imprisonment, or 2) any other misdemeanor excluding a first conviction for drunkenness, simple assault, speeding, minor traffic violations, affray or disturbance of the peace within the last 5 years?
  • Have you ever been convicted of a felony?

Western New England College Law School’s questions cast a wider net:

  • Have you ever been charged with a felony (without the record later being sealed or expunged)?
  • Have you been charged with a misdemeanor within the five years preceding the date of this application (without the record later being sealed or expunged)?

Penn Law’s is much broader still:

  • Have you ever been arrested or been made the subject of an administrative complaint by a duly constituted legal authority?

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. 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.

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. Convictions for drug-related crimes can affect eligibility for financial aid.

If the incident is minor – e.g., disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, 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 Red Sox World Series victory, I was involved in a large outdoor celebration that got out of hand. Along with dozens of my peers, I was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. I subsequently pled guilty 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 have any concerns about your criminal or disciplinary records and how to report on them to law schools, please contact the Pre-Law Advisor.