At some time during the law school admissions process, you are likely to be asked questions about your conduct in the past - academic discipline, college residence hall violations, criminal charges, even what may seem like minor traffic violations. These questions are the first step in assessing your character and fitness for the legal profession, and how you respond to them can have important implications not just for your admission to law school, but for your admission to the practice of law.
In addition to a bar examination, there are character, fitness, and other qualifications for admission to the bar in every U.S. jurisdiction. Applicants are encouraged to determine the requirements for any jurisdiction in which they intend to seek admission by contacting the jurisdiction. Addresses for all relevant agencies are available through the National Conference of Bar Examiners. South Carolina Judicial Department Rule 402 governs admission to practice in South Carolina. You can find detailed information about requirements in other states in the Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements, published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, or you can contact the board of bar examiners in the jurisdiction where you plan to seek admission to practice. And, while the character and fitness inquiry will vary from state to state, most Boards of Bar Examiners will consider the following:
Law schools require applicants for admission to be completely honest in responding to questions on the application concerning past conduct. The questions on South Carolina's application for admission ask:
Application instructions require you to "[i]nclude all disciplinary actions, charges, convictions, and traffic violations. You may exclude parking tickets, but you must disclose all traffic violations including those you consider to be minor. You must provide a complete record of all instances in which you have been arrested, taken into custody, or accused, formally or informally, of a violation of the law. Include instances that have been expunged by Order of the Court and juvenile offenses, whether or not the records are sealed. You should disclose each instance even if the charges were dismissed; you were acquitted; adjudication was withheld; a conviction was reversed, set aside, or vacated; the record was sealed or expunged, or you participated in a pre-trial intervention program. If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, attach a detailed explanation giving dates, locations, the nature of the charge, the disposition of the case, and any sanction imposed. Simply including a copy of your driving or criminal record without including your detailed explanation is insufficient.
I certify that I have read the instructions included with this application for admission to the University of South Carolina School of Law, and that the information on this application and in any supplementary materials provided in connection with this application is truthful, correct, and complete to the best of my knowledge. I understand that I must promptly notify the Office of Admissions of any change to the information in this application, or of any new information without which the application as submitted would be inaccurate or incomplete. I understand that my duty to inform the School of Law continues until I receive a final admissions decision and, if admitted, until the time that I enroll as a student at the School of Law.
Your duty to disclose past conduct is not the same at every law school. The questions on USC's application are quite broad, more so than on many other law school applications. When the offense occurred, you may have been told by a lawyer, parent, or college official that you would not have to disclose the offense or finding of responsibility. In some cases, the disposition of the matter may have been ambiguous, such as when you are required to perform community service, or you are told that if you stay out of trouble for a period of time that an incident will not appear on your record. Most of the time, a court or disciplinary board will actually have made a finding of responsibility on your part but simply suspended any sanction pending completion of service or a period of time without further incident. You may not have realized that a finding of responsibility was even on your record.
Now that you are applying for admission to law school, however, your duty of disclosure is much broader. The Bar, like any law enforcement or government agency, has extensive rights of access to your record, much more so than in a typical employment- or credit-related background check. Many jurisdictions will ask you to submit a copy of your law school application as part of your application for admission to the Bar. The Character and Fitness Committee may compare your law school application with your application to the Bar and the information they discover in their background investigation. Any disparity between what they discover and what you disclosed to the law school will almost certainly result in a more exhaustive investigation into your past record, and you may be called on to explain your failure to disclose to the Committee. It is critically important, therefore, that you be completely honest and forthcoming about any past conduct that is the subject of questions on the application.
This does not mean that the law school, or the Board of Bar Examiners, expects every applicant to have lived a faultless life. Most of us have made mistakes at some time. The decisions we made as teenagers or college students may not be those we would make as mature adults. What is important is that you provide the information requested, acknowledge the mistake, accept responsibility for it, and provide some reasonable basis for a law school admissions committee or the Board of Bar Examiners to feel confident that the mistake will not be repeated. Failing to disclose past conduct will, in most cases, be far more serious, and have far greater consequences, than the conduct itself.
Many studies have shown that the rate of substance abuse is significantly higher for lawyers than for the population as a whole, and a high proportion of cases involving lawyer discipline also involve dependency on alcohol or other drugs. Many lawyers are reluctant to seek help with chemical dependency issues, fearing the stigma or being seen as unable to "cope" in a high-stakes, high-stress profession. For that reason, a Character and Fitness committee will inquire into whether an applicant's use of alcohol or drugs could adversely affect their ability to practice law. An applicant will not be denied admission to practice for having sought treatment for addiction nor for being in recovery from addiction. As with questions of past conduct, the committee seeks only to ensure that an applicant is capable of fulfilling professional obligations. Any applicant who has struggled with addiction or who has concerns about their relationship with alcohol or drugs is encouraged to seek treatment. The South Carolina Bar's Lawyers Helping Lawyers program is available to prospective applicants or law students who have questions or who would like to talk on a confidential basis to an experienced and sympathetic lawyer and substance abuse counselor.
Some jurisdictions require applicants for admission to practice to disclose outstanding all outstanding debts and to submit a complete credit history as part of the application process. Lawyers are entrusted with client funds and may have access to significant amounts of money. A history of responsible personal financial management will give the Character and Fitness Committee confidence that the applicant is worthy of that trust. Applicants who have defaulted on financial obligations, who have a poor credit history, or who are currently past due on credit accounts are encouraged to bring all obligations up to date as quickly as possible. If you have never obtained a credit report for yourself, now is a good time. The three major credit reporting agencies (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) will provide you with one credit report each year at no cost, at www.annualcreditreport.com. You should review your credit report well in advance of the time you apply for admission to the Bar, since there may be errors on the report and you will need time to have them corrected.
As with substance abuse issues, a diagnosis of mental illness, or having sought treatment for mental illness, will not in itself be a basis for denial of admission to practice. The Character and Fitness Committee will focus on whether any mental health issues are likely to interfere with your ability to meet your obligations as a lawyer. The Committee may ask you to provide information about treatment for mental illness to assess whether you are addressing psychological or emotional issues in a mature, proactive way. Applicants should not avoid seeking counseling or other treatment fearing that it will have an adverse impact on their admission to practice. On the contrary, an applicant who acknowledges the need for and obtains professional support to address mental health issues is far more likely to give the Committee confidence that they will be a successful practitioner of the law than an applicant who tries to "tough it out" on their own.
If you are applying for admission to the University of South Carolina School of Law and you have a question about whether to disclose information in response to a question on the application, how much detail should be disclosed, or any other question concerning a potential character and fitness issue, you are strongly encouraged to contact the Assistant Dean for Admissions or the Associate Dean for Student Affairs to discuss your concerns. All inquiries will be treated as confidential.
The South Carolina Bar, as in many other jurisdictions, has a provision allowing a law student to seek an advisory opinion if they are concerned that past conduct, criminal convictions, financial issues, or other matters may prevent them from being admitted to practice. South Carolina Judicial Department Rule 402(f) provides:
A student enrolled in a law school … who has a character problem that might disqualify the student from being admitted to practice law may have the matter resolved by filing a provisional application. The application shall be made on a form approved by the Committee on Character and Fitness and shall be filed in duplicate with the Clerk of the Supreme Court. Each request must be accompanied by a non-refundable fee of $100. The Committee may begin an immediate investigation of the individual's character and shall promptly notify the individual of its determination. No adverse inference concerning an applicant's character and fitness shall be drawn because the applicant filed a provisional application, nor does the filing of a provisional application relieve an applicant from fully complying with the normal application process.