Last updated: July 7, 2013

Where the Future Meets the Past

Gerald L. Wilson
Duke University

For the June 2000 NAPLA Conference, Deb Coquillon, the Pre-Law Advisor at Syracuse University, organized and moderated a panel both cleverly and accurately entitled, Dean’s Certification: Where the Future Meets the Past. The panelists were John Deliso, Associate Dean, Suffolk University Law School, Richard Geiger, Associate Dean, Cornell Law School and Gerald Wilson, Senior Associate Dean and Prelaw Advisor, Duke University.

In the panel discussions, one phrase was repeated over and over again so as to become the real theme of the panel: full disclosure. That is, both applicants and those completing certification forms alike should answer questions about disciplinary action asked as fully as needed to respond accurately without playing with words. For example, an older applicant had been suspended from his school over a decade before for academic dishonesty. When this applicant contacted his undergraduate school about the matter, he found out that since all disciplinary records at that school are destroyed after 10 years there was no record of the incident. This applicant argued that since there was no record, he was not obliged to report the disciplinary action. Yet, it is clear that the question was, have you ever been convicted of any academic offense which resulted in suspension from school?  Not, Is there any record of your having had such action.

Again, full disclosure is the bottom line. As one admission officer pointed out, most of the time full disclosure or the part of the applicant is followed by forgiveness on the part of the law school. Admission officers believe in redemption, especially in the case of youthful indiscretions. However, as both law school officers on the panel agreed, there are some offenses which in many cases, may exclude an applicant from admission: serious plagiarism, cheating, forgery (if this occurs during the application process, then the matter is referred to the LSAC Misconduct Committee), repeated alcohol offenses, drug problems and any pattern of conduct which calls into question an applicant’s character.  As one admission officer said, too much is enough. 

What specific advice then do we give applicants who have a disciplinary record beyond the urging of full disclosure? The student should write up a statement to be sent to the law schools that request information on any disciplinary action. Then the pre-law advisor may review the statement if the student requests that he or she do so. The following guidelines may be suggested to students who have disciplinary action to report.

  • Describe the incident fully, but cogently.  Be specific and do not play with words.
  • State clearly the charge and the sanction issued by the appropriate authority.  Be very specific.
  • Take responsibility for the incident; do not try to place the blame on others or on circumstances. 
  • Indicate that a lesson was learned and state clearly what that lesson is.

Conclude (hopefully!) with the statement that no further incidents have occurred and that the citizenship record has been clear since that incident.

The Pre-law Advisor should keep a copy of the statement, and the person responsible for filling out the Deans Form or equivalent should also have a copy of the statement, if that person is someone other than the pre-law advisor.

The person responsible for completing the Deans Form or College Questionnaire should, acting within the guidelines established by his or her institution, provide a cogent and factual report of the incident. In those instances where possible, it may be helpful to indicate that there have been no further incidents.

In the end, the real question is not so much incidents as character. State Bar examiners, in many cases, have a great deal of freedom in the kind of questions asked.  Like Watergate, the real problem arises not so much from the incident as the attempt to cover up.  Again, the best advice is full disclosure.

In a discussion of this matter at another NAPLA Conference in Washington, DC on June 12, 2002, Ben Rogers, Assistant Dean for Admissions at William and Mary Law School, indicated that when reviewing a disciplinary statement his committee asks two questions:

  1. Will the student be an honor or disciplinary problem at our law school?
  2. Will the particular disciplinary violation preclude the applicant from admission to a state bar? (Alternately, will the disciplinary issue be red flagged by the state bar)?

If the answer is no to both questions, then the disciplinary problems likely will not be an issue.