Roughly 15% of law school applicants have some variety of naughtiness in their past that they are required to disclose in the course of applying to law school. With some exceptions, the naughty act itself rarely casts a shadow over our sense of an applicant’s fitness to be a lawyer; most of what we see is the sort of low-stakes wrongdoing that you’re not surprised would crop up in early adulthood: minor in possession, excessive noise, turnstile-jumping, public urination—behavior that might suggest some bad judgment, but not a fatal character flaw. Even when the conduct is more substantively serious, though, admissions officers are quite open to being persuaded that they should absolve the applicant. So as it turns out, it is the applicant’s crafting of the disclosure that can cast a shadow, making otherwise minor misdeeds appear more concerning—but by the same token, a well-handled disclosure can go beyond merely alleviating concerns and become a positive factor in the evaluation of a candidate’s maturity and readiness for a challenging academic undertaking.
Back at the dawn of time when I started in admissions, I inherited 500 or so applications that had been set aside—all with misconduct explanations, which made for a slightly surreal experience when I read them seriatim. We no longer separate out applications with misconduct explanations (that was the last year that occurred, and I don’t think it is typical practice elsewhere), and the sheer volume gave me a somewhat warped introduction to the task of file-reading—but a very memorable one, leaving me well-versed in all the fascinating approaches people take when discussing past wrongdoing.
The matters about which disclosures must be made fall into two rough categories: criminal legal matters and school disciplinary matters. But saying that glosses over my first giant piece of advice: Read each school’s disclosure instructions carefully, making sure to answer exactly what is asked. That dictum comprises two sub-dicta.
First, most critically, don’t hide anything. The parade of horribles that flows from covering up one’s misdeed includes the possibility of the rescission of admission (after, say, three years of law school have elapsed and no, I’m not kidding), or not being able to sit for a bar exam. At a minimum, you’ll have to endure a whole lot of anxiety and unpleasantness during the period when you’re explaining to the dean of students and the dean of admissions about why, exactly, you didn’t feel your three marijuana infractions needed to be mentioned in your application, and they are in turn deciding how exactly they feel about your feelings.
Now the corollary: Don’t disclose matters about which you are not asked. Some schools ask you about minor traffic offenses; Michigan Law explicitly doesn’t, but if you go ahead anyway and volunteer that you’ve had 12 speeding tickets in the six years since you got your license, it’s going to be hard for me to pretend I don’t know that. And frankly, I will judge.
As a practical matter, this may mean you have to write a separate disclosure statement for every school. You’ve probably already observed in life that doing things the right way is quite often not the same as doing things the easy way.
While figuring out what to disclose is straightforward, things get tricky after that. The Michigan Law application tells you simply to “provide complete details, including dates and resolution.” Mind you, “including dates and resolution” does not mean providing only dates and resolution. “Complete details” means the comprehensive story of what occurred. The obviously omitted details are what spark my curiosity. And basically, it’s never a good idea to spark my curiosity, unless you proceed to satisfy my curiosity in the subsequent sentence. Chances are my triggered curiosity will lead me to invent elaborate narratives, and it is rare that those stories favor the applicant.
“So,” I can hear you saying, “speaking of curiosity: get to the point—which details??” Obviously, each case will be different, but your twin guiding principles should be the concept of relevance, and a commitment to taking responsibility. You need to demonstrate that whatever you’re disclosing wasn’t the opening foray into a life of crime, but something that you’ve grown from and moved past. Forthcomingness paired with reasonable contrition (no need to self-flagellate) is the winning formula. Here’s a hypothetical example:
In the summer before my sophomore year, I moved into a house with a group of friends. We celebrated our freedom the very first weekend by throwing a party, complete with extremely loud music. It didn’t take long for two police officers to knock on our door, and I was the roommate who was quickly elected to answer. I stepped out on the front porch, where I was given a misdemeanor citation along with a brief education about exactly how annoying loud parties are to neighbors. I pleaded guilty on June 21, 2015, and paid a fine of $250. I feel grateful that the cost for this education was so relatively low—both in terms of the fine and in terms of the charge I pleaded to—and have been a much better neighbor ever since.
Now—the good stuff: some examples of what not to do.
An example of omitted information that is relevant: You state that you were charged with and convicted of reckless driving because you were driving in excess of 80 miles per hour—but you don’t tell me how fast you were actually going. There’s a lot of territory between 81 mph and wherever the speedometer maxes out, with varying levels of culpability along the way, so you need to be frank about that extremely relevant bit of data. At the same time, don’t lard the story up with unnecessary detail; in the explanation I’m thinking of, I learned the destination in question, the purpose of the trip, and the number of passengers in the car. None of those details spoke to the misconduct, and I began to suspect that the author was trying to distract me.
An example of omitted information that speaks to a failure to accept responsibility: You tell me you were subject to disciplinary action in undergrad because “marijuana was found” in your dorm. The combination of passive voice and missing personal pronouns provokes a high alert. Let’s just go ahead and stipulate that it was your marijuana.
And yet—what, you ask, if it in fact was NOT your marijuana? Every once in a while, applicants advance the case that they were unjustly accused/charged/convicted. I’m sympathetic, in the abstract. I am not unaware that the wheels of law enforcement do not run perfectly smoothly. Still, it’s a tough case to make in this context, when the reader knows a limited amount about you, and where your highly self-interested voice is the only one the reader hears. If you’re determined to go this route, some advice: Be dispassionate. The more emotion you inject, the less credible the account becomes to a disinterested reader. And if at all possible, get one of your recommenders to validate your account; that will go far to reduce the discounting that naturally takes place when the only account being put forward is by someone who may be self-deluded. If an applicant has convinced some objective party of the account, an admissions decision-maker is correspondingly more likely to be convinced.
A final tip, which I include at the risk of having some readers think I am making insultingly obvious suggestions: This is not the time to relax on copy-editing. I have observed that in an otherwise flawlessly proofed application, I often will find typos and other sloppiness in the misconduct explanation. I have theories about this—perhaps applicants are reluctant to expose their shame to the fresh perspective of an outside reader, or perhaps applicants feel so mortified about their past missteps that they draft this section with one hand shielding their eyes, the way certain family members of mine watch scary movies—but it’s the worst possible place to signal, however inadvertently, that you aren’t taking the process seriously. Constant vigilance!
-Dean Z. Senior Assistant Dean
 Inspired by a recent essay by one of my colleagues—the masterful writer Professor Patrick Barry, expounding on the Rule of Three—I take up my metaphorical pen after quite a hiatus, with the goal of writing not just one admissions-tip-laden blog post but, one hopes, many. As all who have ever met me will attest, I have many opinions. And I love to write, a fact of which Professor Barry’s prose never fails to remind me. So let’s do this thing.