The Formality of Law School Disciplinary Proceedings

One way that law school disciplinary procedures vary from other college and graduate school procedures is the formality of any disciplinary proceedings. Lawyers run law schools, and they understand the law surrounding student discipline and due process. At the same time, the students subject to misconduct or disciplinary proceedings are would-be lawyers. Some of them already have a great deal of training and education in the law and litigation. As such, they are sophisticated enough to insist on more formal proceedings and due process in hearings. 

Common Law School Disciplinary Procedures

Some of the most common law school misconduct or disciplinary proceedings involve:

  • Academic dishonestly allegations
  • Student misconduct proceedings
  • Sexual assault or harassment allegations
  • Other misconduct

Disciplinary proceedings will vary from law school to law school in the details, but many will follow a similar format that includes matters that require a hearing and those that don't. For example, New York University’s law school, the University of Michigan’s law school, and UCLA’s law school disciplinary procedures include both formal and informal proceedings. As with many law schools, these schools have disciplinary committees made up of both faculty and students. If a hearing panel is necessary, the chair may select faculty members and students for the panel.

Complaint

At most law schools, any student can initiate a complaint by informing the dean of a violation of the school conduct or honor code policies. The time limit for doing so will vary by school. At NYU's law school, for example, an individual must file a complaint within 45 days of when the complainant knew or should have known about the violation. But at the University of Michigan's law school, the code of conduct doesn't set forth a specific time limit.

Investigation

After an individual initiates a complaint, an appointed member of the school's administration will conduct a preliminary investigation to determine if the complaint's facts warrant a full investigation. If so, the administrative investigator will provide the defendant with a copy of the complaint. The administration then has a set amount of time to complete the investigation. At NYU, for example, the administration must complete its investigation in 20 days.

Determination of Dismissal

The investigation can typically lead to one of three actions:

  • The investigator determines that the school should take no further action and dismiss the complaint.
  • The investigator determines that the facts alleged would not lead to dismissal from law school and decides that the disciplinary proceeding can continue through an informal process.
  • The investigator determines that the facts alleged could lead to dismissal from the law school and a formal disciplinary proceeding is therefore necessary.

At most law schools, if there is a possibility the complaint could lead to dismissal from law school, you are entitled to more due process throughout the disciplinary proceeding, including a more formal hearing. However, if you are the defendant in an action where the investigator decides that a formal disciplinary process isn't required, you can still request a formal hearing instead of the informal process at most schools.

Formal Disciplinary Proceedings

If an investigator determines that a student could face law school dismissal due to the allegations, the student is entitled to formal disciplinary proceedings. These formal proceedings provide more due process and typically involve a formal hearing, follow stated rules of evidence, allow formal representation by an attorney or advisor, resulting in a written report, and may be appealed to the dean. While the parties can typically agree to resolve the matter without a hearing through negotiation, a formal hearing will usually follow if that doesn't finalize the matter.

Hearing Panel Convenes

Once the dean notifies the school's disciplinary committee, the investigator will usually provide the committee with a copy of the investigatory file without any proposed terms for resolving the matter or personal reflections on the matter. At most schools, the individual acting as a “prosecutor” prepares a written document that describes the conduct that allegedly constitutes a rules violation and specifying the rules violated.

Pre-hearing Procedure

The school must serve the prosecutor's charge document on the student within a set number of days of the date the student exercised their right to a formal hearing. The school should send the charges via certified, express mail service, or another method guaranteeing service. While the procedural rules should deem the allegations automatically denied, the student can still file a response simply denying the allegations or providing an answer to the allegations. The hearing then commences within a reasonable period of time unless the accused waives the hearing, a party shows the panel there is good cause to postpone, or the parties agree to postpone the hearing.

Confidentiality

All proceedings during a law school's disciplinary process should be confidential except for the participants and those necessary to the proceedings. The accused can waive confidentiality for a person, institution, or generally. 

Procedure & Evidence

While all schools may have slightly varying formal procedures, they will all typically serve the purpose of granting a student due process. The rules of procedure and evidence will cover things like:

  • The respondent, their adviser, and the prosecutor usually have the right to be present at the taking of all evidence, make opening and closing statements, and be present whenever members of the discipline panel are being addressed. 
  • The panel typically can opt to pose written questions to the parties and witnesses at the hearing or after, but it does not have the legal power to compel testimony or the production of documents. That said, a lack of cooperation may allow a disciplinary committee to make a negative inference. 
  • All panel members should be present at the hearing, and all its actions will be by majority or unanimous vote.
  • Any hearing panel member may excuse themselves from hearing a particular charge, and any participant may have the right to ask that a member of the panel be removed. Some schools allow the defendant preemptory challenges to the membership of the hearing panel
  • The school will likely use established rules of evidence, be it oral or written, and procedures for presenting and responding to that evidence.
  • Law schools define the mode and order of the parties' presentations. This may include the examination and cross-examination of witnesses.
  • Each school will define the burden and standard of proof, be it a preponderance of or clear and convincing evidence.
  • The school will likely record the proceedings on audiotape, by stenographic record, by videotape, or another method.

Written Report

Typically, a school's disciplinary hearing panel must make a written report setting forth findings of fact and the panel's conclusions and reasons within a reasonable period of time after the hearing's completion. Usually, the school will serve copies of the report upon the prosecutor, the respondent, the respondent's adviser, if any, and a designated member of the administration. If the hearing panel dismisses the charge, the record should be kept confidential except to the extent that the law requires disclosure. 

Possible Sanctions

Possible law school sanctions may include, but aren't limited to:

  • Warning 
  • Censure 
  • Denial of academic honors 
  • Disciplinary probation
  • Restitution 
  • Monetary fine 
  • A grade of FX for the class, which is a completed course with no grade, no drop, and no withdrawal 
  • Suspension for a specified period 
  • Dismissal 
  • Revocation of degree according to university rules 

Disciplinary panels at various schools may also impose a sentence and suspend it because the student agrees to another sanction, not on the list but that the panel deems appropriate.

Appeal to the Dean

In most formal proceedings, the accused will have the right to appeal the Disciplinary Committee's decision. At NYU and UCLA, appeals go to the dean, but each school will have an express appeals process. After the respondent files an appeal, the panel chair will send the entire record of the proceedings to the designated appellate individual. At many schools, the respondent and the prosecutor can write submissions for the appeal and reply to the other's submissions. The appellate dean or administrative member can then make a schedule for oral arguments. 

In formal appeals proceedings, typically each party has the right to reply to the oral or written submissions of the other party. The administrative appellate body will then affirm the hearing panel's action, reverse it, or reverse it and return the charge for further proceedings. If the school affirms a hearing panel action sustaining a charge or where the respondent's appeal is only regarding the recommended sanction, the appeals body can typically reduce the hearing panel's sanction but can't increase it. If the respondent doesn't appeal, then the initial disciplinary panel's findings and sanctions are final.

Annual Reporting

Every year, each university makes reports of all disciplinary matters to the school's students and staff. In the report, the matters are typically described generally and not with any specificity to identify the party involved.

Informal Disciplinary Proceedings

An informal law school disciplinary proceeding typically happens when a university investigator determines that the facts alleged wouldn't lead to law school dismissal. If dismissal isn't possible, the school can use an informal disciplinary hearing process. However, the student can usually request a formal disciplinary process as well.

Informal Reporting

While the informal disciplinary process can vary from school to school, it typically follows the same pattern. At NYU, Michigan, and UCLA, the process begins when a student emails, calls, or contacts in person the Dean of Students, any member of the Office of Student Affairs, the Office of Graduate Affairs, or another designated staff member to report an issue. An informal proceeding allows the law school to tailor the approach to the issue and the student involved. In some cases, the school can address issues or concerns without a factual investigation. For example, if a student seeks a referral to a campus resource or a change in campus policy or practice.

Informal Process

The informal process can include a variety of steps tailored to the issue or student, including: 

  • Dialogue with affected persons, either jointly or separately
  • Referrals to campus services
  • Administrative accommodations include adjusting class schedules, changing sections, housing assignments, waiving a fee, etc.
  • Voluntary mediation
  • Verbal cautions or warnings
  • Voluntary apology or acts of service
  • Collaborative agreement on behavioral or institutional changes
  • Voluntary educational, mentoring, or coaching sessions
  • Added institutional programming or services
  • Other non-disciplinary interventions

Resolution without a hearing typically involves the agreement of a majority of the faculty members of the disciplinary committee. The student is also entitled to have an advisor to negotiate a resolution. The resolution without a hearing may involve an agreed-upon statement of facts and a sanction.

Privacy in Informal Proceedings

Informal procedures in law school disciplinary matters generally seek to protect the privacy of all the parties involved, although schools may disclose information as appropriate. However, law schools may seek the input of many faculty and administration members in the process, including the equivalent of the:

  • Law School Dean
  • Dean of Students
  • Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion
  • Chair of the Inclusion and Diversity Committee
  • Vice Dean for Intellectual Life
  • Assistant Dean for Academic Services and Registration
  • Vice Dean for Curriculum

Hire an Experienced Law School Student Defense Attorney-Advisor

If you're facing academic misconduct or disciplinary investigations in law school, you need the right defense. A law school disciplinary conviction can prevent you from being admitted to the bar or practicing law after all of your hard work and years of studying. You need an experienced student discipline attorney-advisor to guide you through what is a rigorous and intensive process.

Attorney-advisor Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have successfully helped countless law students whose future was on the line, and they know how to approach the unique aspects of law school disciplinary proceedings. The Lento Law Firm's experience in the law school proceedings is also bolstered by their handling academic and disciplinary issues at more than a thousand universities and graduate schools nationwide. Let him help you protect your academic and personal reputation and your professional future. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-636-3686 today.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact our offices today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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