Law school is a lot of work, and it takes a lot of money. You worked hard through at least four years of college, through the LSAT, and law school. Then you face even more hard work to prepare for and take the bar exam. All along, you've paid a great deal of money for your education and the skills you've learned. So, what happens if someone makes an allegation of misconduct against you, whether personal or academic? Will this affect your admission to the bar?
Disciplinary Issues and Crimes Can Prevent You from Becoming a Licensed Attorney
Unfortunately, misconduct allegations in law school can affect your future licensing and your professional career, including allegations of:
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has handled thousands of educational discipline cases and appeals in undergraduate and graduate school programs.
An adverse academic misconduct charge can be devastating to your law school education and your future legal career. Academic misconduct covers a wide range of behaviors but includes plagiarism, cheating, collaboration without permission, failing to properly cite sources, sabotage, bribery, or blackmail.
Consequences for a guilty academic misconduct finding can range from a failing grade to suspension, expulsion, or even revoking a degree. If your law school expels you, it can be difficult to gain admission to another school. If you do regain admission elsewhere, it can be difficult to become licensed to practice law.
Not every disciplinary violation in law school will involve academic integrity, cheating, or plagiarism. They can also include violating criminal acts, sexual harassment, or other misconduct in the student code. These violations may include:
- Social media violations
- Cyberstalking, threats, or harassment
- Computer or internet crimes
- Drugs on campus
- Violent threats
It's important to note that local police agencies may also charge law students with crimes based on behavior that allegedly happened on campus. You could face both criminal charges and a school disciplinary proceeding. While the justice system has a high “beyond reasonable doubt” standard, your law school likely will not use the same high standard to judge your conduct. It is possible for a school disciplinary hearing to expel you from law school for behavior no jury would convict you of in a court of law.
Title IX Allegations
Law students may also be subject to Title IX for sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, or sexual violence. Title IX is a federal civil rights law passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”), 20 U.S.C. §1681 et seq. prohibiting sex-based discrimination at federally funded educational institutions. Although your law school's disciplinary policies and procedures will overlap with Title IX, federal law and Title IX federal regulations will determine much of the process for these violations. Title IX violations can include:
- Sexual assault, battery, or coercion
- Sexual harassment
- Gender discrimination
- Sexually suggestive jokes
- Aggressive or physical sexual advances
- Offensive touching
- Dating or domestic violence
- Non-consensual sex
Determining a “fair and proportionate” response will vary widely from school to school. Sanctions for misconduct violations, including academic misconduct, other disciplinary violations, and Title IX violations, can vary widely in law schools, depending on the type and severity of the infraction.
Law students may also find that criminal charges, whether related to or separate from a school disciplinary case, can affect their academic and professional careers, even if the incident happened off-campus. Criminal charges that law students often face off-campus include:
- Drunk driving
- Driving under the influence of drugs
- Domestic violence
- Prescription fraud
- Drug possession
- Weapons offenses
It's important to note that if you face criminal charges for something that happens off-campus, you may also face school disciplinary proceedings for the same incident, including Title IX proceedings for an alleged sexual assault on campus. Offenses under the law are often also violations of the student code of conduct.
While a criminal court uses the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for conviction, most colleges do not. A law school can apply its standard of proof to behavior allegations. If a law student is found not guilty in a court of law, they could still face disciplinary proceedings and punishment from the school. If a court convicts a law student of a crime, the student will probably also face school discipline unless it is a minor misdemeanor.
If you're facing an academic misconduct charge, criminal charges on or off-campus, a Title IX allegation, or a disciplinary matter, it is a serious matter. You may be embarrassed and think you can handle it yourself and explain what happened. But you need professional help to avoid long-term consequences to your legal career and to ensure that you can be licensed in the future. If you already have a disciplinary matter or other infraction on your school or criminal record, you will have to report this on the Character and Fitness portion of your attorney licensing application. These issues can prevent you from becoming a licensed attorney, and you need legal guidance right away.
Applying for Initial Bar Admission
At first glance, you'd think the most difficult part of bar admission is the bar exam. After all, a three or four-day exam with a 60% pass rate is awfully intimidating.
But you've spent most of your law school career preparing for this exam. By far, the most invasive portion of admission to the bar is the application itself. If you have a disciplinary or criminal record, the Character and Fitness application will be the biggest hurdle you have to overcome.
The application for bar admission is extensive. Lawyers are considered pillars of the community, expected to uphold the highest ethical and personal standards. Lawyers are often leaders in the community, and many go on to become judges or hold local, state, and political offices. While it may seem invasive, the bar application process reflects each state's wish to hold its licensed attorneys to these high standards.
Your bar application will ask you about any arrests or criminal charges, regardless of whether or not a court convicted you. You will also need to disclose juvenile records and any charges you've had expunged or sealed. The bar admissions process will also require fingerprinting and an extensive background check. You will even need to provide a copy of your driving record in any state where you've resided. Many applications even ask for things like parking violations.
Character and Fitness Exam. The most invasive part of any bar admission is the character and fitness exam. It isn't a formal, timed exam like the Multistate Bar Exam. Rather, it's an examination of your character and determining your fitness to serve as an officer of the court and a pillar of the community. Most bar jurisdictions in the U.S. have published character and fitness standards. The few that do not include Alabama, D.C., Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, and Maryland. However, these states will inform you if you need to appear before the admissions committee. You will usually have at least three to four weeks' notice.
As part of your character and fitness exam application, you will need to submit fingerprints at a local police station. You will need to provide your complete criminal history, including records of any arrest or detention by the police, regardless of whether you faced charges. You will also need to provide your driving record from any state where you've resided, including while you were at college. You must even provide your credit report, traffic tickets, restraining orders, and civil actions filed in court against you.
In some states, a felony conviction will prohibit you from becoming a member of the bar, including Kansas and Mississippi. In others, like Georgia, the state must restore your civil rights before you can apply. In other states such as Kansas, there is a five-year waiting period for convicted felons to apply for admission to the bar. In still other states like the District of Columbia, you must go through a formal hearing with the admissions committee before the state bar considers your application. Most states will have additional hurdles for convicted felons to jump before admission to the bar.
Law School or Dean's Certification Letter. As part of your admission packet, you will also have to submit a certification from your law school, usually signed by the dean. This certification typically asks the law school to reveal whether you have been subject to academic probation or disciplinary action. If you fail to disclose anything that turns up in your law school certification letter, it will most certainly be an obstacle to bar admission.
Moreover, after a misconduct conviction in law school, you'll face the same inquiries in each state where you apply for admission to the bar in the future. Even after your initial admission, all applications in another state with reciprocity and future full applications for admission will face the same scrutiny.
Applying for Reciprocal Bar Admission
For many of us, after an initial bar admission, we seek to expand our practice through admission to the bar in additional states. In some places, you can do this through reciprocity with your own state. In other states, you must apply to the bar and take the exam again as if this were your first bar admission.
Even more states offer a hybrid, with a shortened version of the bar exam and application process for practicing attorneys. No matter what the process of any additional bar applications, every state will conduct an additional character and fitness examination of applicants seeking admission to the bar.
Some states will allow admission to the bar without an examination. Waiving the examination is often possible in states that offer reciprocal admissions to another state's attorneys. It's most common in neighboring states or in states where people from many states practice. For example, any attorney can apply for admission to the D.C. bar if they've been admitted for five years in another state or admitted to another state with an MPRE score of 75 and an MBE score of 133.
Lawyer's Exam Admission
Some states don't offer a “no exam” option for reciprocal attorney admission. Still, they will allow attorneys who have been practicing for a while to take a shorter “lawyer's exam” for admission. For example, Maryland does not allow any attorneys to waive into the state without examination. But Maryland does allow attorneys who have been practicing for at least five years to take a shorter, one-day bar exam for admission.
Full Application Admission
Some states don't allow attorneys to waive in or to take a lawyer's exam for admission. Each applicant must go through the entire bar exam application process in these states, including a full bar exam and a full character and fitness exam.
Regardless of whether you must take the full bar exam or can waive into additional states after admission to your first, any criminal or disciplinary background will come up in each application. You should be prepared to discuss and explain any academic or disciplinary misconduct in school or law school, as well as any arrest or criminal history. Because each state handles misconduct in applications differently, there is no guarantee that admission to your first state will mean admission to any subsequent state where you apply.
For example, in Illinois, individuals with felony convictions can sit for the bar exam after receiving a character and fitness certification. If you were admitted to the bar in Illinois but now want to apply for reciprocal admission in Kansas, you'll have different standards to meet. In Kansas, someone with a felony conviction must wait for five years after completing their sentence before becoming eligible for admission to the bar. So, you'll have to ensure that you've met the Kansas requirements before beginning the application process.
How Can an Attorney Help?
Of course, the easiest way for an attorney to help is to be involved as soon as you're accused of academic or student misconduct log before any college finds you guilty. But, an attorney can still help clean up your record after the fact. An attorney can negotiate with your college to overturn or remove infractions, particularly if you had an otherwise unblemished record after your disciplinary issue. Your attorney can also work with your law school to draft a new “Dean's certification” letter that explains a disciplinary issue and your subsequent rehabilitation more fully.
If you have a criminal record, an attorney can help clean that record up as well. In some states, depending on your crime, you may be able to have your record expunged and have any record of an arrest, trial, or conviction destroyed or sealed by court order. While you may still need to report some sealed or expunged convictions or arrests, having taken action necessary to clean up your record shows the bar that you are now serious about your professional reputation.
Aggressive Student Misconduct Defense
“He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
- Abraham Lincoln
If you're facing an allegation of misconduct in law school, you need to defend yourself aggressively. And while law school students may sometimes feel like they have enough training to handle this, remember what lawyer Abraham Lincoln said. The future of your entire career could be riding on the outcome of a law school disciplinary proceeding, so you need an attorney advisor with extensive experience representing students like you.
Attorney-advisor Joseph D. Lento has handled academic and other misconduct issues at thousands of schools across the country and he has helped hundreds of law students fight for their future. Let him help you protect your academic and professional reputation. Contact attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today for help.