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Bar Admissions Blog

Helping Bar Applicants Prove Character and Fitness for Admission to the Bar

Cheating Yourself

Q. I got caught cheating on a law school exam, received a failing grade in the course and got reprimanded. How will this affect my admissions efforts?

A. Warning us not to take shortcuts in grade school, our teachers would say that "when you cheat, you are only cheating yourselves."

Some of us took longer to learn this lesson than others. In law school, those who cheat may cheat themselves out of a career. This will not necessarily preclude your admission to the bar. But a cheating incident will certainly complicate your prospects and prolong an arduous admissions process. As applicants lose sleep over the ensuing investigation, and continue to sweat through the ordeal long after their classmates are sworn in, they learn the hard way that honesty really is the best policy.

Honesty is also the best policy when confronting the issue in the admissions process itself. But honesty alone will not replace the need for experienced bar admissions counsel to assist you in disclosing the incident on your bar application, or in responding to proceedings thereafter. Because academic dishonesty goes to the very heart of one's character, you cannot do without competent representation.

With the assistance of counsel, you must own up to your shortcomings while presenting other evidence designed to allay concerns that you lack respect for rules or lack the integrity expected of bar members. You and your lawyer must collaborate on all aspects of your bid for bar membership, including:

Strategic Disclosure — Since the incident already appears on your law school record, there's no way to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room. In your bar application, you need to hit the issue head on, showing total candor in describing the details surrounding it. Efforts to obfuscate or shirk responsibility only reinforce concerns and further reduce your chances of admission. You should take a stab at an initial draft yourself, but send it to your attorney for modification before submitting;

Rehabilitation and Personal Growth — Show that you have learned from your mistake and have taken steps to address the underlying cause of the misconduct. If you participated in ethics courses or counseling, or made other efforts to right your wrongs, your lawyer will want to include these efforts in your personal statement to bar examiners;

Letters of Recommendation — Get strong letters of recommendation from individuals who witnessed your reaction to the incident and may share their perspectives on how you have grown since. They may also be very helpful as character witnesses should the case go to a hearing; and

Character Interviews and Hearings — Whether they interview you, schedule a hearing, or both, you must meet a heavy burden to overcome the character concerns raised. To determine whether you possess the requisite moral character, bar examiners will look for evidence that you have truly learned from the incident and have a renewed commitment to the ideals of our profession.

In my experience, bar examiners have compassion for those who make mistakes. But they also have a duty to protect the public from lawyers who enter the profession without a strong moral compass. If they are to recommend the admission of an applicant with a history of academic misconduct, you must persuade them that such misconduct is unlikely to recur.

If you are inclined to spare the expense of counsel, let me offer some free advice: You've taken shortcuts before and they have jeopardized your admission to the bar. By representing yourself, your arguments and expressions of remorse may be viewed as self-serving and insincere. Rather than meet your burden of proof, you will likely prove to have a fool for a client. Unless you want to be the first and last client you represent, recognize that those who cut corners are only cheating themselves.

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