Character & Fitness Addenda: What Are They & What Should I Disclose?

Law school applications ask some version of these questions:

Have you ever been subject to disciplinary action for academic or other reasons in any of the colleges, universities, graduate, or professional schools you have attended, or are such charges pending or expected to be brought against you?

Have you ever been convicted of a crime (following a jury or bench trial, a guilty plea, or a nolo contendere plea), or charged with a criminal offense that was later dismissed as a result of a plea bargain or alternative sentencing arrangement, or are such criminal charges pending or expected to be brought against you? Include misdemeanors and criminal infractions, as well as any interaction with a law enforcement agency that resulted in payment of a fine or order of community service. Do not include minor traffic violations or civil infractions or citations for which jail time was not a potential penalty.
(From the University of Michigan’s application.)

I’ll refer to these as character and fitness questions. If you check “yes,” you’ll have to write a short essay to explain what happened.

Before we get into the details, I want to give some credit to others who have written about this issue. Asha Rangappa, Dean of Admissions at Yale Law School, wrote a great blog post about required addenda. Former Dean of Admissions of the University of Chicago Law School Anna Ivey also wrote about this subject in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, and her colleague Gregory Henning wrote about it in Anna Ivey’s blog. The following lessons about addenda synthesize Dean Rangappa’s post with Mr. Hening’s blog post, Ms. Ivey’s book, and my experience as an editor.

Academic Disclosures

Some students think they don’t have to disclose an incident that was expunged from or not recorded in their permanent record. Most law school applications, however, don’t ask if an incident was recorded; they ask if it happened. That means that your permanent record is irrelevant. If you sat before a disciplinary board, had to retake a test, or suffered any other consequence—even if you were found innocent—you’re obligated to report it.

It’s foolish to play Clintonian legal games. Assume that everything you don’t disclose will come back to bite you.

Criminal Disclosures

Some character and fitness questions ask about incidents except those that have been expunged from your record. Some want to know if you’ve ever been convicted of or pled guilty or no contest to a felony or misdemeanor. Some are broader still, asking for any incident, civil or criminal, in which you were “arrested, charged, cited or summonsed.” Read the character and fitness question carefully—each one is a bit different.

If you’re not sure whether or not you have to disclose, you should just disclose. Why? Let’s consider two cases.

Say you committed a minor infraction: jumping over a subway turnstile, speeding, a noise citation, drinking in public. A violation like that is unlikely to doom your application. Demonstrating a lack of candor, on the other hand, is a much more serious problem, and in the age of the internet, you should assume that everything will eventually come to light.

Now let’s say that you committed a major infraction. Even if you don’t disclose what you did on your law school application, you’ll probably have to disclose it to your state bar, at which point the character and fitness committee will cross-check your answer with your law school application. As Dean Rangappa explains, if your answers don’t match, you might have a hard time being admitted to the bar. A lack of consistency between your law school and bar applications—especially a mistake that looks like deception—can be a black mark.

Think long-term. Would you want to pay for three years of law school if you could never practice? It’s better to disclose now, on your application.

If you’re still not sure what to do, consult a criminal lawyer who practices where you’d like to practice.

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