As future lawyers, one of the tasks you will get really, really good at (and very, very bored with) is called document review.* Doc review means going through boxes and boxes of documents (or lots of PDFs), often in a windowless conference room, searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack on the chance it will be useful to the case** you've been staffed on.
It's time to put on your doc review hats as applicants, because law school applications will be released in a matter of weeks, and they will require you to make certain disclosures. The two most common disclosure question types are broadly (1) whether you have ever gotten into any trouble with the academic or administrative powers-that-be at your college or university and (2) whether you've had any run-ins with the law. If you've never gotten into any trouble in college, and you've never gotten into any trouble with the law, then your task here is easy, and there's nothing for you to review or disclose. But if there are things in your background that you might have to disclose, you'll have to pull together whatever information you can in order to answer the questions accurately.
Each application will ask those disclosure questions slightly differently, and you'll have to put on your lawyer hats again to engage in some statutory interpretation. By "criminal charges," for example, do they include juvenile offenses? How about things that have been expunged from your record? What about the reckless driving ticket you received?
And by "disciplinary action" in college, does that include the academic probation you received that semester when your grades dipped below a certain average? How about the citation you received when campus police caught you running around drunk and naked in the quad? (I don't make these things up.)
Answering those kinds of questions correctly will require you to have copies of your disciplinary or criminal records, read them carefully, and determine whether the language of the application questions triggers disclosure in your case. Many applications word their questions broadly, so if you're in doubt, law schools expect you to disclose. In the case of criminal records, you may even need to talk to a lawyer to understand whether, in that jurisdiction, what you did was a misdemeanor or a felony, whether you were "convicted" (that word has technical meanings), etc.
The reason I bring these not-so-happy topics up now is because of timeline. It can take time to gather the documents and find out what you were charged with, what you were convicted of, what your criminal records say, or whether there was any official sanction or note in your university file. If you need to talk to a lawyer, that's extra timeline. If you need to talk to the dean of students, that's extra timeline. If you discover you can't get a copy of your student records until you pay that outstanding $30 chemistry lab fee you owe, that's extra timeline. If you need to call nine different counties in the state you lived in four years ago because you can't remember where exactly you received that reckless speeding ticket and you need to order the county records, that's extra timeline. If you need to track down your former roommate because you can't remember what the heck happened that evening when your RA read you the riot act and made you appear before some hearing, that's extra timeline.
Go ahead and start pulling together those documents now, and refreshing your memory now, so that you are ready to fill out your applications accurately when they are released. And hang onto your documentation about your disclosures, because you'll need them again when you apply for bar membership.
More tips from the archives:
- Does Academic Probation Count as Disciplinary Action?
- Dealing With Your Past: Disclosing Criminal Issues on Law School Applications
- Disclosing Criminal Issues in Your Application: Useful Terminology and FAQs
Questions or concerns about potential disclosure issues? Please post in the comments.
** If you end up being a transactional lawyer instead of a litigator, you'll still be doing the same kind of work at the start of your career -- scouring through lots and lots of documents -- but it will be called due diligence, and it will be in service of the deal you're staffed on, rather than a case.
Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook.